Must-see musical “The Last Five Years” stars theater power couple Gab Pangilinan and Myke Salomon
How does it feel like to bring one of the world’s most beloved musicals about heartbreak back to the Manila stage?
For theater actor Gab Pangilinan, there was definitely a lot of pressure. “We were so surprised when our opening weekend sold out overnight. That's five shows!” she exclaims. “I've been doing theater for quite a while, but personally, I don't think I've ever been more nervous for a show.”
And it’s no wonder why Manila’s theater lovers immediately rushed out to buy their tickets to Barefoot Theater Collaborative’s new staging of The Last Five Years. Ever since it premiered in Chicago in 2001, Jason Robert Brown’s musical about couple Cathy and Jamie’s failing marriage and all the factors that contributed to its demise has captured the hearts of, well, anyone with a heart.
The Philippines in particular has a deep connection to this musical: in 2003, it had its international debut in Manila at the RCBC Plaza, starring local theater icons Audie Gemora and Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo. In 2014, it was staged for a second time by 9Works Theatrical, this time starring Joaquin Valdes and Nikki Gil.
But for a certain subset of Millennials and Gen Z, it’s the 2014 film adaptation starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan that immediately comes to mind. The movie’s success made the musical resonate with a totally new generation, and made it essential viewing to anyone who ever tried to move on from a breakup.
So, why the pressure? It was crystal clear: to stage a musical this beloved, and that means so much to so many people, was a challenge of the highest order.
“It's the pressure of bringing it on stage because everyone knows it so well,” shares lead actor Myke Salomon, who plays Jamie. “How do we tell this story in a fresher way?”
Yet to director Topper Fabregas, staging The Last Five Years was first and foremost a labor of love. “I am such a big fan of the material. I first heard it 20 years ago when it came out, and I just loved it for so long,” he shares. “I loved the two characters, and I loved their entire journey.”
Marking the first play he’s directing since the pandemic, Fabregas shares that he immediately thought of Pangilinan and Salomon when it came to casting the perfect Cathy and Jamie. “I couldn't think of two better people more well-fitted to these roles, especially at this time,” he shares.
“I was just listening to [the soundtrack] one day on Spotify, and I just thought of Gab and Myke. So I messaged Gab, and I said ‘Listen, I'd love to direct this someday with both you and Myke in it.’ And right away she was like, ‘Hold the phone, I'll get back to you in five minutes.’ And really, that's just how it all came together,” he laughs.
It’s easy to see why The Last Five Years amassed such a cult following, and so much of it lies in just how universal this story is. The disappointment with not being exactly where you thought you would be in your life journey, the isolating pain of feeling neglected by your partner, and the crushing realization that you and your SO are in totally different life stages—aren’t these all very real issues that we’ve all struggled with?
“We think about Jamie being the genius in the relationship, the real artist, and we look at Cathy as less-than,” says Fabregas. “And now that I'm older, I realize that everyone hits their strides at different times in their lives. I just thought, what happens now when these two people are equals, but the stars aligned faster for one and not yet for the other? And how does that cause imbalance in the relationship?”
The first thing you’ll notice while watching is just how bare-bones the staging is. The audience at the theater cocoons the center stage, which consists of two long aisles with a sliding platform between them. There are a few props per scene, but no elaborate sets—the world of Jamie and Cathy is left to the audience’s imagination.
According to Fabregas, this was a deliberate choice. “I'm going to quote my movement designer, Delphine [Buencamino],” he shares. “She said, ‘We have to allow the audience to meet us halfway.’ And I think that's even more powerful and lovely because you get to paint your own picture and color it with your own experiences.”
Admittedly, this bare-bones staging may be a little confusing to newcomers to Brown’s play. But the minimalism allows for several lovely and otherwise overlooked elements to shine: like the way the lighting shifts from warm to cool to delineate the show’s hopeful and heartbroken timelines, or the sweeping sounds from the orchestra that make each song’s emotion just even a little more palpable.
But of course, The Last Five Years is ultimately carried by the powerhouse performances of Pangilinan and Salomon. Pangilinan, in particular, soars as she delivers the highest notes with the most crystal-clear voice. Yet she stuns even in the most mundane scenes, imbuing her Cathy with the most subtle inflections that betray her supposedly happy and content facade.
“I think one of the things was [that] I didn't want people to see Cathy as a broken girl who deserved to be left behind,” says Pangilinan. “A lot of people see her as this weak character. But for me, she had every right to demand what she needed from the relationship. She was also so supportive of Jamie. But like any person, if you get rejected multiple times, you will get those dark days and patches.”
Salomon, on the other hand, took great care to paint the humanity in Jamie, a character that most fans of the show love to hate. “People think Jamie is an asshole, but in the beginning, he gave everything,” he shares. “He's an Icarus, because he flew way too close to the sun. But in the beginning, he gave her a thousand Schmuel stories.”
Portraying the highs and lows of being in love is definitely a tough challenge, but one that Salomon delivers masterfully. He projects his energy to the audience so powerfully—whether he’s gushing exuberantly about his newfound Shiksa Goddess or mourning his faults in his marriage in Nobody Needs to Know.
Fans of the movie may be shocked to see that Cathy and Jamie barely interact. In fact, the show stays faithful to the play’s original staging, where monologue-style performances emphasize the lack of connection and loneliness that both Cathy and Jamie begin to feel in their marriage.
But the production comes into full electric bloom with the couple’s one scene together, at the apex of their relationship. Without spoiling anything, the production designers and actors all come together to deliver a moment that fully leans into the romance no-holds-barred, and may even trigger a tear or two.
The Last Five Years may be a musical about heartbreak, but the last thing Pangilinan and Salomon want is for the audience to leave the auditorium only heartbroken. In fact, when Cathy and Jamie’s paths traverse as they perform the finale number Goodbye Until Tomorrow/I Could Never Rescue You, the ending feels very melancholic yet strongly hopeful.
Pangilinan believes this is intentional. “I hope they see that these last five years are not the end of [Cathy and Jamie’s] lives,” she says. “They have the next five years. So for me, it's a beautiful relationship. But it's not the end.”
“You can watch the show and be like, ‘Oh my god, they broke up,’” she continues. “But for me, it's only five years of your life. You still have your next five years.”
Barefoot Theater Collaborative’s The Last Five Years, directed by Topper Fabregas and starring Gab Pangilinan and Myke Salomon, is extending its run until October 29, 2023 at the Power Mac Center Spotlight Blackbox Theater, Circuit Makati. Buy your tickets here.
Copy Jer Capacillo
Photos Kyle Venturillo for Barefoot Theater Collaborative
Art Macky Arquilla