After making a splash in Chicago and Off-Broadway in the early 2000’s, Jason Robert Brown’s soulful and intensely personal musical The Last Five Years has gradually become a minor sensation among colleges, local theater, and larger companies alike. Limelight Theatre and 1st Stage have pulled off a production that ably manages the complex storytelling, wildly fluctuating emotion, and Sondheim-esque vocal gymnastics of Brown’s intimate work, while making it their own by adding a few surprisingly satisfying artistic twists.
The Last Five Years charts a slowly crumbling relationship between actress Cathy Hiatt and writer Jamie Wellerstein, alternating between the distinct viewpoints of each character. What sets Brown’s work apart from other such meditations on love and heartbreak is his inventive use of crisscrossing timelines. Jamie narrates the relationship from his point of view chronologically, whereas Cathy begins at the bitter end and slowly fights her way back to the simple, happy time of their first meeting. This narrative approach reveals much about each character’s outlook on life and their relationship. While Jamie maintains a thriving writing career and looks keenly toward the future, Cathy longs to escape her frustrating, mundane life of Summer Stock, small local productions, and simmering jealousy towards Jamie.
Director Jay D. Brock has entrusted this complex task to Carolyn Myers and John Loughney, two talented performers who soldier admirably through a procession of entertaining and difficult numbers. Myers possesses a beautiful, clear voice and wonderful emotional range. In “Part of That”, she reflects on her frustrations and feelings of inadequacy within her relationship with Jamie, and is ultimately buoyed by the simple memory of his smile. Her strongest song, “A Summer in Ohio” allows her to flex her comedic muscles as she kvetches about her stagnant acting career, providing welcome levity to an increasingly bleak emotional landscape.
Loughney starts off a bit rough but steadily grows into his performance as his character matures. He’s unconvincing as a fresh faced youth, perhaps because it’s not his comfort zone or perhaps because Jamie’s early songs, including “Shiksa Goddess” and “Moving Too Fast” seem weak and contrived when compared to the emotional heavyweights of the show’s second half. As his character ages and becomes more confident, Loughney really hits his stride as both a singer and storyteller. I found myself transfixed by “The Schmuel Song”, a sly folk tune whose strange time signature keeps the audience on its toes. Loughney quickly sheds the early awkwardness and confidently bounds about the stage reenacting Jamie’s fantastical story about an old tailor and a talking clock. Loughney is totally in the zone as an older Jamie struggling with his own needs while trying to keep his marriage intact. He delivers his best performance with “If I Didn’t Believe in You”, a bittersweet ballad wherein he tries with all his might to keep Cathy from slipping away and to recapture their spark of love.
On opening night, Myers and Loughney were occasionally outmatched by the vocal demands placed on each character. At times, Loughney notably lost the music and had to wait while the orchestra caught up, resulting in a number of awkward moments. Both Myers and Loughney valiantly battled with their characters’ upper ranges, particularly in the faster paced songs, sometimes coming up noticeably short. A share of these troubles can be blamed on composer overreach. Like a child with a brand new toy, Jason Robert Brown has created vocal lines that are often too complicated and needlessly hectic for their own good. The music is beautiful and inventive, but the sometimes stratospheric intervals and rapid key changes frequently prove to be a distraction.
Jay D Brock’s direction creates a persistent sense of emotional tension and reflects a keen understanding of the material. In his most successful scenes, he positions the silent character within the singing character’s sightline but dangles them just out of reach. This repeated juxtaposition of the two lovers creates the uncomfortable feeling that while Cathy and Jamie are singing at each other; they refuse or are simply unable to hear what the other has to say. The set and lighting initially underwhelm, but slowly reveal themselves as savvy calculations within Brock’s greater artistic plan. I won’t give it away, but I will say that the production ultimately rewards the attentive audience member.
Limelight Theatre and 1st Stage’s production of The Last Five Years is a pleasant artistic surprise tucked away on an unassuming street in Rockville. The music is generally excellent, and2010 Helen Hayes winners (Rent Ensemble) Loughney and Myers pull off a slate of impressive performances during the hour and a half runtime. This little gem of a show is an enjoyable way to get your musical fix while celebrating the merciful passing of Tax Day.
The Last Five Years
By Jason Robert Brown
Directed by Jay D. Brock
Musical direction by Jeffry Newberger
Co-produced by Limelight Theatre and 1st Stage
Reviewed by Ben Demers
The Last Five Years plays thru April 24th at the Rockville Jewish Community Center, then transfers to 1st Stage in Tysons Corner, VA May 7 – 23, 2010.
THE LAST FIVE YEARS