Theatre Review: Short North Stage’s The Last Five Years is Full of Luminous Heartbreak
The Last Five Years by Jason Robert Brown had acclaimed runs off-Broadway roughly a decade apart (and a recent movie with Anna Kendrick) and reverberated through theatre fans as an answer to Romance Romance for my generation with songs that helped establish (after a cause celebre adaptation of Parade) Brown as one of the pre-eminent theatre composers. Short North Stage’s taut production, directed by Nick Lingnofski, opened Thursday and it’s the right combination of tough-minded and glittery to send the audience out into the night singing through their tears.
The Last Five Years dissects a relationship from the first blush of infatuation to the moment both of them know it’s over. Jamie Wellerstein (Jarrad Brion Green) sings forward chronologically as Cathy Hiatt (Melissa Hall) starts with getting the “It’s over” letter and moves backwards in time. Through the 16 songs, their voices only directly cross swords twice. First at the moment when the timelines intersect as he proposes marriage and she accepts on “The Next Ten Minutes.” Second, on the finale when her “Goodbye Until Tomorrow,” bursting with light and hope, “Goodbye until I crawl to your door, and I will be waiting,” intertwines and bitterly harmonizes with his “I Could Never Rescue You,” featuring lines like “So we could fight, or we could wait, or I could go.” Throughout, the songs fill in each other’s gaps in the narrative and musically, complicating on one hand and stripping corrosion away on the other. That technique reminds us that no matter how much we love someone, anyone, we each only view a relationship through our own eyes and memory, the way we construct the story of our own life, matters just as much, and maybe more, than the concrete facts.
One of the things that gives The Last Five Years its punch is its commitment to these two characters who are every bit as screwed up as we all are in our 20s. Green’s Jamie tries and fails to overcome his weakness and ego as he finds himself swept up in the current of too-early success grinning through “Moving Too Fast” with the simultaneous distrust that love and worldly success happen so quickly and the young man’s confidence that this is how it should happen, that the world owes him this. Hall’s Cathy has the harder job of starting as the person being left and filling in a life intent on rising above mundanity (“I Can Do Better Than That”) and in love but understandably frustrated at how much harder she has to work than her partner for less return as well as angry at the insecurity that brings up in her.
With just these two people on stage for the 90 minutes of the show, it’s vitally important we believe them and want to spend that time even if they make us cringe. They couldn’t have done better on that score. Green has a seductive edge and a charm that draws the audience forward in out chairs as we see his sweetness in songs like “The Schmuel Song,” a plea for Cathy’s happiness (augmented with charming animation by Sophia Gersing), and his immolation on songs like “Nobody Needs to Know,” where there were literally audience members who couldn’t look at him. Hall is heartbreaking through songs like the desperate attempt to repair things on “See I’m Smiling” and “The Next Ten Minutes,” navigating complex melodies and turning them into delicious ear worms without sacrificing any of the psychological reality.
Lingnofski outdoes himself, staging this chamber musical, in the center of the stage with the audience on both sides, to underline the noble futility of the characters’ attempt to connect and the deep abyss of loneliness they move around and teeter on the brink of. This aided by Edward Carnignan’s ingenious set of simple but evocative platforms, a pond, and diaphanous curtains that host projections – there’s a moment where the set shifts in such a perfect way it evokes an audible, classic stage magic gasp. Similarly perfect and in line with everything else is the trio providing the music. Andrew Willis on keys, violinist Nick Saunders, and jazz guitarist Tom Davis, slip between introspection and swinging rhythm with ease, implying a huge, exciting world and the two lonely people who have to live in it, often at the same time.
This production of The Last Five Years understands the pain that fuels every sweet moment. And it doesn’t forget how beautiful life can be. It’s a sexy, intoxicating night at the theatre that never panders but earns every gasp, every giggle, every teardrop.
The Last Five Years runs through May 22 with shows at 8:00pm on Thursday through Saturday and matinées on at 3:00pm on Saturdays and Sundays. For tickets and more info, visit shortnorthstage.org.