Meet Jamie and Cathy. Jamie is a budding writer, Cathy is an aspiring actress. In love and in their early 20s, their future together sparkles with potential. Jamie begins telling their story from their first date until they break-up five years later. Cathy, on the other hand, begins the story in the midst of the painful wreckage of the break-up and works her way back to their magical beginning.
The structure of this musical – two halves of the same story told in opposite directions – not only reflects what is going on in Cathy and Jamie’s relationship but what can often go wrong for couples. The two are rarely present together and while they’re telling the same story, each has their slant. They circle each other, close, but never quite together. At its heart, this show is about how well you communicate with those you love.
The lighting (Jason Glenright), set and costume design of this production all support this dichotomy very neatly. The predominant colours of the set are black and white, and two main distinctly different lighting states, clearly indicate where a scene is in the timeline of the relationship (to be clear, there are more than two lighting states, just two key ones). Minimal and clever use of props provide contextual clues for the situation, e.g. a nice dress, a champagne glass, or a book signifying we’re at a book launch.
In terms of staging and direction, transitions between scenes are generally very smooth. Often both actors are on stage even though only one character is truly present in that scene, and then one has to make an exit before the next song. The times they are on stage together (but not) are directed well by Zöe Tuffon but there were occasions where I wished the actors had more dramatic motivation for leaving or entering the stage.
I love Lizzie Moore’s Cathy. She is an appropriate blend of wide-eyed optimism and grounded determination. Her performance was intimate and engaging and her voice skilfully negotiates Brown’s music. She and Kurt Phelan have palpable chemistry. His Jamie is funny and beguiling and his voice has great power, however at times his performance felt like it was more suited to a larger venue. Indeed, Phelan is used to performing in large musicals like Dirty Dancing where performance must be quite heightened to be seen from further away. I still thoroughly enjoyed Phelan ‘s Jamie. It just felt like he and Moore were operating in two different styles, almost like they were in different shows.
On the night of review, the sound levels of this production were unfortunately unbalanced. I realise the singers probably need to be miked to be heard above the band but that amount of volume in such a small space is uncomfortable (though I did adjust to it after a few songs). This was truly a shame as the music of the band and performers is beautiful.
Interestingly, seeing this production has changed my perception of the show. It’s all too easy to fall for the gumph that Cathy is needy and not understanding, or is even jealous of Jamie’s career, but there’s no real evidence of this. Essentially, without spoilers, Cathy is right when she says she is left “covered in scars [she] did nothing to earn”. I fear that this issue comes from the story being a little too autobiographical. The ex-wife of its composer/writer, Jason Robert Brown, did in fact file a lawsuit over the show. While Brown tries to tell both sides of the story, there is a tendency to excuse rather than examine Jamie’s behaviour. This production opened my eyes fully to some of the more problematic aspects of Cathy’s portrayal.
The show is still something extraordinary. The Last Five Years is a standout musical because the music and lyrics are so fundamental to the story. Every song allows for character exploration and furthers the incredibly personal narrative- with gorgeous, clever, funny lyrics to boot. The music is melodic, lush, beautiful and jazzy. It remains one of my favourite musical scores and this production did its complexity justice – shout out to musical director Shanon Whitelock and the musicians. This is a heart-grabbing musical about the exhilarating highs and crushing lows of relationships and what happens in between.
Ask someone to spend their life with you for the next 90 minutes and get along to The Last Five Years.