Where did it all go? Love’s ups and downs in ‘The Last 5 Years’

Rome Jorge

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Where did it all go? Love’s ups and downs in ‘The Last 5 Years’
Nikki Gil and Joaquin Valdes star in this play about a relationship from beginning to end

Boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl stories have become trite over the years, and the trajectory of their characters predictable.

From sitcoms to telenovelas, audiences can soon graph where the plot is heading and who ends up with who. The thrill is gone. These days, audiences are more keen on man-tries-to-find-out-what-the-hell-went-wrong stories, where insightful and honest character portrayals, not plot twist and surprises, are what keep audiences riveted to the show. Just such a tale is The Last Five Years.

Set to premier in cinemas this September as a Hollywood movie adaptation starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan, The Last Five Years can now be enjoyed in its original theater-musical form starring Nikki Gil and Joaquin Valdes at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium, RCBC Plaza, Makati City, until August 31, 2014, 8pm on Fridays and Saturdays, 3:30pm on Saturdays and 4pm on Sundays.

No musical escapism

The Last Five Years tells the story of how fame and failure divide a loving couple. There are two characters onstage: Jamie Wellerstein, a successful novelist doing his best to stay atop of his own rise to popularity, and his wife, Cathy Hiatt, struggling actress who deals with rejection and failure. Insecurity and infidelity bedevil them even as their lives go in completely opposite directions.

Take a look at a snippet via 9Works Theatrical on YouTube:

What makes the play especially unique is its storytelling. While Jamie’s bewildering rise to fame is told in chronological order,  Cathy’s spiraling descent into failure and heartache is told in reverse.

Jamie and Cathy enact their 5-year relationship from their respective perspectives, sometimes sharing the stage, but only once interacting together—during their wedding—midway through the play. The narrative structure epitomizes their relationship.

The Last Five Years is a musical that doesn’t use songs as means of glossing over and escaping the realities of narrative. Characters just don’t sing their way out of a messy situation. Instead, they confront them with heartwrenching lyrics and impassioned vocals. 

The musical begins with Cathy lamenting the end of her 5-year marriage with the song “Still Hurting” while  Jamie, set 5 years earlier, brims with newfound ardor as he sings paeans to his Cathy with “Shiksa Goddess.” 

The play ends with Cathy, enamored and enthusiastic after her first date with Jamie, singing “Goodbye Until Tomorrow.”  Jamie, on the other hand, sulks in their apartment, lamenting the end of their marriage as he sings “I Could Never Rescue You.”

Though audiences clearly know where the story is heading, it is how these characters are revealed that intrigues and beguiles them. This 21st-century musical tacitly recognizes the savviness of today’s theatergoers who have seen and read every kind of plot under the sun and who find that little if any surprises them. The art, more than ever, is in the telling, as The Last Five Years clearly shows.

Art imitating life 

A poignant play that resonates with today’s generation, The Last Five Years is especially relevant to its two lead actors. 

Nikki Gil, besides being a theater actress with roles in such musicals as Legally Blond, is a popular television and movie actress and singer whose romantic life has been the fodder of the entertainment press. After her recent heartache, she confides that she sees so much of herself in Cathy.

“Is there anything about her I can’t identify with? Cathy is very real to me because in some ways I am Cathy—with the way that she feels with her relationship, with the way the she feels with conflict, with the way that she looks at life and opportunities or the lack thereof.”

She enumerates the similarities: “The break up, that’s one. Her insecurities as an actress. Her insecurities about her talent. It’s a very competitive industry. It’s inevitable, you will feel inadequate at times. You will feel that there’s always gonna be someone better equipped to do your job. But you know it’s just that luck thing when you get the opportunities that you have.” 

She adds, “There’s a part in the musical where she auditions, and she goes through one audition after the other. And I remember doing that for a season, I would rush from one VTR (video tape recording) to another, and audition to another. So I get that about Cathy where she’s like hopeful and and she’s building her dreams around getting that one lucky break. And when Cathy writes to Jamie who happens to be out of town for work – I have experienced that.” 

Gil does note that she and Cathy differ greatly in one crucial aspect. “I don’t accept defeat. Cathy reaches a point in her life where she just resigned to the fact that it’s not gonna happen for her. I’m too much of a perfectionist for that. I can be very hard on myself to a fault.”

Joaquin Valdes, a successful film director as well as a noted actor who last shared the theater stage with Bart Guingona on was the critically acclaimed straight play Red, also sees much of himself in his character Jamie. 

He reveals, “I guess I can relate to Jamie in the same adrenalin or drive that he has. There’s a sense of wanting to prove himself because he knows he has what it takes and he knows he’s talented, but there’s also this will to succeed and that’s also innate to a lot of young people now.

You know you graduated college. You think you’re the most talented person around. You think you can conquer the world. You think you can be the next whatever, Mark Zuckerberg. And it’s good and bad. It’s good in the sense that you’re driven. But it’s also bad because it’s a little delusional that you’re like a freak train that doesn’t care what you’re running into along the way as long as you get to where you need to go. I could relate to that. 

I was once and maybe even now sometimes I still am overzealous, a little determined, full of myself, conceited, proud. Knowing that I had something to say and I had something to show.”

He notes, “It’s really not all about just your skill and talent. I’ts about the people around you and that’s where you know I learned that also the hard way. Jamie obviously also learned that the very hard way when he faltered in an important relationship. And you grow up, you mature. I think that’s the real cracks of this story is—too much too soon. And it doesn’t mean that the passions or the love wasn’t real. It’s just wasn’t the right time.” 

A play with only two characters,  The Last Five Years demands much from its lead actors.There is no dance or chorus to fill any voids. There is only there voice and their presence alone. 

JUST THE TWO. The play intimately revolves around the central characters, so everything rests on their shoulders. Photo courtesy of 9Works Theatrical

Valdes notes, “Whatever process as an actor that you fall in love with in the theater, it’s magnified maybe fifty or a hundred times because there’s no one else but just you two. So you are not relying on big production numbers. Literally no dance and no chorus. You’re not blinded by the fancy sets and costumes. You’re forced to study the text…and that’s something I like.”

Gil anticipates, “There will be a lot of, ‘This is how she should have been played. This is how it should have been done,’ just because the material is so open [to interpretation]. Even our Director Robbie says there’s so many ways to do this musical, so many ways to do Cathy and Jamie and you kind of have to just zero in to just one interpretation. At the end of the day I am, this is my version of Cathy. This is how I wanted this played.”

With such an earnest play so close to the hearts of its actors, audiences can expect no less than an affair to remember.

Pushing the envelope 

At the press premier of held on August 9, Guevara and his team unveiled their vision for the play.

The set, as designed Infante and lit by Esteva, evoked time travel with its funnel of square portals that frame the stage. Actors interacted with a rotating bed and little else. The scene was sparse yet effective. Crucial was the use of live orchestral music that included a violin, a cello, piano, among others. These musicians provided a powerful emotive aural backdrop that prerecorded music simply is incapable of.

Ultimately, the play rests on the shoulders of its two actors. The play runs for an hour and a half with no intermission and with the two actors in every scene. Valdes notes, “You have to essentially keep the ball up. You gotta keep it like that for the entire 90 minutes, the only rest you have is before and after. More than the physical aspect, its really the emotional aspect, because you’re always present.”

Brown’s music for the play are the anthems of this generations’s heartache. His lyrics are indelible. And his music’s unusual progression is a challenge for any singer. They are blend of jazz, pop, rock, and even a bit of latin.

Valdes’ timbre suits his numbers well. But the songs the play tasks to Gil’s character Cathy demand a range that is lightly beyond the actress’ comfort zone of placid sweet ballads. Despite a one or two flats, she nonetheless soldiers on with aplomb and empathic singing.

More than singing, Gil and Valdes act with their songs, effectively expressing emotion not just with their lyrics but also with their very delivery. You not only hear them; you feel them.

9 Works Theatrical’s The Last Five Years is a pleasure to watch for both the candor and eloquence of the material as well as the verve of this production. Bravo. Brava.

Jason Robert Brown’s much-loved 2001 off-Broadway hit is staged by no less than 9 Works Theatrical, most recently responsible for the flawless staging of Dani Girl as well as past smash hits Grease and Rent.

At the helm is director Robbie Guevara. Joining him are musical directors Joseph Tolentino and Lionel Guico, scenographer Mio Infante, projection designer GA Fallarme, lighting designer Martin Esteva, sound designer Chuck Ledesma, technical director Gerhard Daco, photographer Leo Castillo, program editor Tin Samson, and graphic artist Larry Palma. – Rappler.com

Writer, graphic designer, and business owner Rome Jorge is passionate about the arts. Formerly the Editor-in-Chief of asianTraveler Magazine, Lifestyle Editor of The Manila Times, and cover story writer for MEGA and Lifestyle Asia Magazines, Rome Jorge has also covered terror attacks, military mutinies, mass demonstrations as well as Reproductive Health, gender equality, climate change, HIV/AIDS and other important issues. He is also the proprietor of Strawberry Jams Music Studio.

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