It’s summer in New York and Jamie Wellerstein, a bright young thing in a Columbia writing program, meets aspiring actress Cathy Hiatt for a date. They move in together, get married, and then watch their relationship slowly deteriorate toward the inevitable divorce. This, in a nutshell, is the plot of Robert Jason Brown’s elegant chamber musical The Last Five Years.
The catch is not in the story, but the way it is told. Quite literally musical theater, The Last Five Years is made up entirely of songs sung by either Cathy or Jamie, but almost never both. Cathy narrates the story of their five-year relationship backward, beginning the show with the divorce and ending with their first date.
Jamie, however, begins with a gleeful admission that he’s breaking his Jewish mother’s heart by falling-head-over heels for Catholic Cathy. He ends the play walking out of their apartment, saying goodbye as a giggling, youthful Cathy waves from a first date five years earlier.
In theory, this musical could be done in one room. Director Jason A. Fleece and Scenic Designer Justin Longnecker chose, however, to fill the Wellerstein apartment with moveable furniture: a futon that serves as both a sofa and the bed of another woman when Jamie, inevitably, cheats; and a rolling table which functions as a bar, a café counter, and a reception table.
While it was nifty to watch the table magically become a bar, I wonder if it might have had more impact to keep the action completely in the space of the apartment. The set, walls of squares covered in pictures of Cathy and Jamie and a few empty picture frames, emphasized the space between them as a physical one (their apartment) and an emotional one (their marriage). Had the action remained more in this room, it would have given us more of an impression of past piling onto present instead of the photo-album quality we see in the different songs.
The actors were, unfortunately, unequal to the script. The play is biased in favor of the male, giving the charming and straying Jamie a boost simply in terms of personality and humor. Actor Stewart Calhoun, with his dimples and powerful top range, gave us an appealing Jamie, mining the role for its humor and capturing sympathy in the most unexpected places.
Jessica Rosenberger’s Cathy, on the other hand, was not as successful. Rosenberger’s top and head voices are accurate, if not spectacular, but she was hampered by a weak middle voice, which was made even more obvious simply because she was paired with Calhoun’s incredible ability to belt.
Cathy is, of course, also a problematic character because in this play the woman comes off unfavorably. Jamie is self-absorbed, unfaithful, and thoughtless, but at least he is funny. Cathy, on the other hand, is self-conscious, nervy, and clingy, but her (chronologically) early songs—in particular a determined narration of her reasons for going into show business called “I can do better than that”—suggest more of a backbone than we get a chance to see. It is to her disadvantage that she is the less successful partner (while Jamie’s first novel is an immediate hit, Cathy never gets her big break), as well as the one who tells the story backward: Our first impression is of a crushed, miserable woman and it is hard to shake that downtrodden image.
The chronic musical problem of the slump in the second act is exacerbated by the fact that there is only one person onstage. After 50 minutes, you are practically begging for some kind of interaction between the characters who pass each other entering and exiting but never speak.
This is, of course, the point of the show—two people inhabiting the same space without actually communicating—but it is slightly annoying to watch. Even the wedding, the only point of mutual interaction, is a harmonizing of two melodies rather than two people singing the same song.
The beauty of this musical is its incredible simplicity, the fact that it distills a love story into a 90-minute revue which runs the emotional spectrum from sweet to funny to deeply sad, all through two characters and with minimal technical work. It is held together by a motif of time, touched on in Jamie’s stories, in his proposal, “will you share your life with me/ for the next ten minutes?” and in the glittering watch that Cathy wears for most of the show.
And, even taking into account the voices, Calhoun, Rosenberger, and the production team at the Theater School did capture this collection of emotional snapshots with tact and humor. With a beautifully crafted score and two charming leads, The Last Five Years is a low-key must-see for Valentine’s Day, no matter where you are in your five years. Plus, it’s free, so even the starving artists can’t quibble.