Aug 14, 2014

[Theater] The Last Five Years (9 Works Theatrical)

When I think of The Last Five Years, I think of my longtime friend, Mahar. He loves musical far more than I do (and some people think I'm a bit much in this area), and he's the friend who is most likely to recommend a new show to me. And on and off over the past few years, he's always talked about the beauty of this particular musical. He even made sure I had the soundtrack so I could relate to what makes this play so great.

I typically say that the music of the play is never quite as real as when you get to see it on stage. This is mostly true for most musicals since there are bits of straight dialog that are not captured as part of cast recordings since they're not necessarily part of the songs. But this is one of those musicals whose story is quite predominantly told through song - and it's quite a story to tell.

There's been a lot of discussion about the complexity of the play and it's somewhat unusual story structure. But it's really not that difficult if you stop thinking of time as strictly being a linear progression of events.

But seriously, you don't need to be a Time Lord to appreciate this play.

Synopsis: The Last Five Years is a musical written by Jason Robert Brown - music, lyrics and book, the works, it was all him. It first premiered in Chicago back in 2001, while this staging by 9 Works Theatrical at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium at the RCBC Plaza in Makati City from August 9-31, 2014. This production was directed by Robbie Guevara.

At it's most basic, the play is about the five years of a relationship - from its hopeful beginnings to its rather sad end. But the narrative is a little unconventional since it is told from the perspective of each person, but coming from different direction. Cathy (Nikki Gil) starts the play at the end of the relationship with the somber song "Still Hurting" Then Jamie (Joaquin Valdez) follows up with "Shiksa Goddess" from the very beginning of the relationship. Thus we jump back and forth as each character goes through the rise and fall of their time as a couple with the only time they "meet" in the narrative with the song "The Next Ten Minutes."

Typically I take two paragraphs to summarize the story of any play, but in this case I just need one. The rest of the details in-between are best discovered by watching the play or listening to the soundtrack very, very carefully. It's really not that complicated - although 9 Works has a little flyer that they give out to viewers to help you keep track of where things are in the timeline.

Nikki Gil is quite the theater veteran by now and a regular in 9 Works productions. But she certainly has a challenge with this production given the depths of emotions that the character go through. Her role felt particularly hard since her narrative begins at the end - she has to begin the play broken and in tears and then navigates her way back to the beginning. And it's not like her entire narrative arc is all that hopeful - she's an aspiring actress after all, and that means a heck of a lot of rejection in her life. She didn't quite hit the mark when we watched, at least not in the beginning. But she found her way in time.

We had last seen Joaquin Valdez in the Atlantis Production staging of Spring Awakening, and he's certainly grown as an actor since then. And while it seems a little easier to go through his timeline since it's simply a start to end piece, he still had a lot of emotional situations to resolve as well. How long can you be the cheerful, hopeful aspiring author when your girlfriend is dealing with a lot of rejection in her professional career? And what do you do when your writing career begins to take off while your partner in life still hasn't quite gotten past the starting line? Valdez does pretty well for the most part in trying to capture these nuances of the role.

The set design by Mio Infante was certainly gorgeous to look at and the program for the play included an interesting interview with him where he discusses the rationale behind his design. But in terms of actual use in the play I felt it did more harm than good since it severely limited where the actions could interact (mostly around the bed and the raised area under the giant frames) plus all the different obstructions resulted in a lot of instances when you couldn't quite see the characters because of line-of-sight issues. And this was despite the fact that we were sitting pretty much dead center.

Similar challenges were faced with the audio-visual aspect of the production through the use of a giant projector and several silk screens placed strategically around the stage for light to bounce off of. This was okay for backdrop images like the one used in "The Next Ten Minutes" but was horrible for instances that required more details such as several portraits that were displayed while Jamie sang of his love for Jamie and the worst being an entire SMS message that was next to impossible to read.

And that brings us back to direction, really. Looking at various stagings of the show around the world thanks to YouTube, you'll find that a lot of folks decided to be a bit more literal in stressing the importance of the time element by incorporating clocks into the set design. That was a nice touch that really helped convey the time element in the narrative and helped stress the back and forth. This stage didn't quite have that element, although they tried to convey the going back and forth by the rotation of the bed in one corner of the stage. Each character had to go out of his or her way to rotate the bed either at the beginning or at the end of their scenes.

There was also a decision to have the characters sing to invisible versions of their partners. Sometimes this was represented by a spotlight moving around the stage. Sometimes they pretended to hold hands with nothing (and not spotlight either). Sometimes they were talking to air while the other actor was also on-stage depicting a different time period. Such moments got rather confusing and I wish that had stuck closer to the original visual treatment where the active actor would behave as normal with most of his or her time facing the stage while the other actor would simply have his or her back to the audience. It was a simple way of addressing the issue without the actors looking a little silly at times in this local staging. And when you follow sightlines or try to visual how exactly they're holding hands, the reality starts to break down - like when you watch a movie with bad CGI that forgets to depict the bounds of physics and the pull of gravity.

Barring those concerns, The Last Five Years as a whole is still pretty powerful, and that just lends further credit to the power of Jason Robert Brown's music. The actors managed to bring the story to life as well as they could and the music managed to take us the rest of the way. This staging gets a good 3.5 hilarious things to look forward to in Ohio out of a possible 5.

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