It may not make sense to celebrate the past five years of your relationship with a performance of The Last Five Years – the musical. After all, for 50 percent of the show your job as an audience member is to painfully watch this fledgling relationship between Cathy and Jamie disintegrate while trying not to openly cry. (That’s right, tough guy. I saw you.)
However, just as Cathy belts out to Jamie - “I have been waiting for you . . .” similarly I have been waiting to see a production of The Last Five Years for a REALLY long time now. Strangely, while this amazing musical has been performed ’round the world in countries as varied as Mexico, Greece and Hungary (even being translated into German and Dutch) and even though it made its off-Broadway debut at the Minetta Lane Theatre (Right there! Minetta Lane!) it still has remained strangely elusive to me. So, in our little corner of the world, it actually made perfect sense for my husband and me to mark the 5th anniversary of our 1st date – our Last Five Years – with a viewing of Stage Left Productions The Last Five Years. But wait - it meant we had to travel all the way to Southern New Jersey. ONE HUNDRED miles and TWO hours away from the off-off Broadway community that I know so well.
So . . . was it worth it?
There’s got to be a phrase that’s more emphatic than “Hell Yeah“. But for now it will just have to do. Hell, YEAH it was worth it.
No one asked me to review this show, no one knew I was coming – and frankly I don’t think that it would have mattered one little bit to anyone that I was there since (gasp) I don’t think my name carries any weight with the theatre crowd out in Woodbury, New Jersey.
But what the heck, I’m going to review it anyway, because that’s what I do.
For those not familiar with the story of The Last Five Years it’s terribly bittersweet, pinging and ponging you between elation and frustration with the change up of every song. For while Cathy Hyatt (in this case, Jenny Knackstedt – beguiling, sweet, innocent and charming with a voice that belts, quivers, giggles, sighs, trembles and tugs at your heart with every note) starts us with the end of her marriage and must then move from raw, open wound to starry-eyed love sick lass without ever missing a beat, Jamie Wellerstein (Ed Corsi – just the kind of guy you could fall for, and then get crushed by) moves chronologically which would appear much easier. Just like a dance, the man moves forward while the woman has to do it backwards – and in heels.
But the trick of this show (and what director Ed Santiago does very, very well) is to get the audience to understand Jamie’s arc and eventually truly see his side. This isn’t easy, considering that before Jamie even has his first line of song he comes off like a thoughtless, selfish prick. “Jamie is over and where can I turn? Covered with scars I did nothing to earn?” cries Cathy, and boy – do we hate Jamie, sight unseen.
For a while he doesn’t help his own case – especially in songs like “A Miracle Would Happen” where, minutes after getting married to the girl of his dreams, he’s bemoaning the fact that he can’t go near all these other women who are, apparently, throwing themselves at him. “But it’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine, You know I love her / And it’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine– It’s what I wanted / And I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine! It’s not a problem, It’s just a challenge– It’s a challenge to resist / Temptation.”
Corsi brilliantly draws every convoluted bit of specious reasoning out of this song – and for a moment I actually did sympathize with Jamie here – saw for the first time how difficult it must be to watch your ship of women arrive just as you sail off on the Marriage Boat. And this is no easy feat – especially after sweet, inconsolable Cathy has just opened up her bleeding heart to the audience not that long before with “Go and hide and run away! Run away, Run and find something better! Go and ride the sun away! Run away, like it’s simple, Like it’s right…”
Full-on sympathy for Jamie actually starts happening when you can see that he – a young, gifted writer who falls backwards into the career chance of lifetime – simply wants to enjoy his new-found success with an equally matched woman at his side. Cathy, (in “Climbing Uphill/Audition Sequence”) on the other-hand, struggles with her lot. She wants to be an actress but feels outmatched by the “two hundred girls – Who are younger and thinner than me. Who have already been to the gym. . . . ” and yet she rallies against what she sees happening to other girls she grew up with – and staunchly proclaims “I will not be the girl stuck at home in the ‘burbs With the baby, the dog and the garden of herbs. I will not be the girl in the sensible shoes Pushing burgers and beer-nuts and missing the clues. I will not be the girl who gets asked how it feels To be trotting along at the genius’s heels! I will not be the girl who requires a man to get by.” Clearly, she’s conflicted. And while she knows what she doesn’t want to be, and what she can’t be . . . what she wants to be, and can be is a little more elusive. Knackstedt skillfully handles this song – moving between thin audition and inner monologue to defiant stance while taking the audience along for the ride. And though we still love Cathy – at this point there’s a bit of an emotional rent . . . if this is what Jamie deals with daily, no wonder he’s wavering.
And Jamie says as much, in the very beautiful “If I Didn’t Believe In You”, where he for (we can only imagine) the hundredth time props Cathy up and tells her to keep going, because she’s worth it. It’s stunning in its truth - “If I’m cheering on your side, Cathy, Why can’t you support mine? Why do I have to feel I’ve committed some felony / Doing what I always swore I would do? I don’t want you to hurt. I don’t want you to sink. But you know what I think? I think you’ll be fine! Just hang on and you’ll see– But don’t make me wait ’til you do / To be happy with you– Will you listen to me? No one can give you courage / No one can thicken your skin. I will not fail so you can be comfortable, Cathy. I will not lose because you can’t win.” Wow. And at that moment – really – would any one begrudge Jamie his success?
It’s not all – to borrow a phrase – climbing uphill, however. The other half of The Last Five Years (which interweaves in between the sadness) is full of that dizziness that shines over those first days when you love someone beyond comprehension. “I have been waiting for you” they both cry – Jamie in the beginning of the show, Cathy at the end. The elation and excitement is palpable . . . Jamie is thrilled to have met his “Shiksa Goddess” who not only “breaks the cycle” of all the “Shabbas dinners on Friday nights With ev’ry Shapiro in Washington Heights” but who also seems to be able to give him some sort of freedom that he never experienced before. On the other hand, in “Goodbye Until Tomorrow” Cathy is thinking “Finally yes! Finally now! Finally something takes me away. Finally free! Finally he can cut through these strings, And open my wings!” And at that moment you’re thinking – oh. Oh . . . honey – no one can open your wings for you, child. No wonder we found you crying so hard an hour and a half ago.
Saddest of all is that this young couple, Jamie Wellerstein and Cathy Hyatt, are simply facing unusual – but not terribly insurmountable - challenges. Line up any relationship’s First Five Years and see how many challenges are flowering in between the cracks. But this show isn’t called The First Five Years. The fact that it purportedly mirror’s composer Jason Robert Brown’s relationship with his own wife make it only that much more poignant.
Musical director Colin Maier deserves much of the credit for the beauty of this production as well – with much of the story being told through song and just a few simple lines of dialogue here and there to bridge a scene, Maier’s pacing and passion is what takes you from point A to point B (or from point B to point A, depending on which character you’re playing). There are beautiful moments in the score that underline danger ahead – the way a canted angle would alert you in a film – and Maier draws these moments out perfectly without overstating them. He and Santiago partner perfectly to direct these two gifted actors to present a jewel of a play.
If you’ve been waiting, like I have, to see The Last Five Years, and if the thought of traveling a bit doesn’t phase you then I highly recommend taking some time to check out this production being mounted by Stage Left Productions. I left the theatre feeling emotionally drained, yet strangely elated. And honestly – if they ever want to ask me back to review officially, I’d be happy to drive on out to Jersey again.
~~~THE LAST FIVE YEARS Written by Jason Robert Brown Directed by Ed Santiago Musical Direction by Colin Maier . November 5 – 14, 2010 Stage Left Productions at Sketch Club Players 433 Glover Street Woodbury, NJ 08096 . Click Here to purchase tickets