From the joy of meeting to the unraveling of love and back again, The Last Five Years is a poignantly told tale of a failed marriage.
As always with broken relationships, communication breaks down. And in his semi-autobiographical chamber musical—inspired by his failed marriage—author Jason Robert Brown emphasizes the inability to connect by its unusual structure.
The bride and groom interact directly only once, at their wedding. At all other times, Cathy and Jamie are at different points in their relationship. She tells her story in reverse chronological order, beginning from the marriage breakdown with the number I’m Still Hurting, while he sings of his excitement at meeting his true love, his Shiksa Goddess.
As an aside, this song was a replacement for the original, I Could Be in Love with Someone Like You, when Brown’s ex-wife, Theresa O’Neill, threatened legal action because the storyline of The Last Five Years was too close to fact for her comfort.
Since its premiere in Chicago in 2001, the sing-through musical has received numerous productions worldwide and is spoken of as a cult musical. A less successful movie version appeared in 2015.
The form of The Last Five Years creates numerous issues for the two performers, who are essentially giving two solo presentations while ensuring that their timing and movement of props and costume pieces to make them accessible to each other is precise.
In the Orpheus Musical Theatre Society production, directed by Kodi Cannon, both Michelle Gendron as Cathy and Louie Rossetti as Jamie overcome the challenges they face by the quality of their stage presence and singing voices.
The symbolic tug-of-war between his growing fame as an author and her increasing lack of confidence as a struggling actress comes through with every song. From Jamie’s point of view, he will not fail, so she can win. As Cathy sees it, his writing success and adoring fans are more important to him than their relationship or even being with her on her birthday.
While the songs are not particularly memorable, despite some interesting lyrics, under Wendy Berkelaar’s musical direction, The Last Five Years is highly successful on the musical front. Cannon’s stage direction is also effective, although a few directorial decisions are questionable. For example, having Gendron double as the other woman during the brief bedroom scene gives the impression of the couple making up rather than breaking up. Better to have Jamie imagine the other side of the bed has an occupant, as he does later in the scene.
Another minor irritant is the repetitive noisy movement of a rolling ladder to shift props from character to character, even if it is employed for expediency. A third problem is the apparent lack of concern about costuming, which leaves Cathy in an unflattering dress and Jamie in jeans at his wedding ceremony. (No costume designer is mentioned in the program.)
In general, however, the Orpheus production of The Last Five Years is a welcome continuation of the new tradition of a smaller, slightly risky season opener.
The Last Five Years continues at the Centrepointe Studio to September 23.
Written and Composed by Jason Robert Brown
Originally Produced for the New York stage by Arielle Tepper and Marty Bell, Orpheus Musical Theatre Society. Directed by Kodi Cannon
This article was originally published on the Capital Critics Circle on September 21, 2018, and has been reposted with permission.