By Megan Graves
At 7:15pm on Friday night, instead of leisurely sauntering into the small Sugar Space Theater to choose the perfect seats for the musical The Last Five Years, my friends and I were sitting in my car on the shoulder of the freeway median, waiting for the tow truck to come because the car’s timing belt had suddenly broken. It was slightly ironic that we were going to be late to a show in which the wear and tear of time was a main theme, and in which one of the main characters Cathy sings “I will be waiting for you” repeatedly, but the effort we made to still see the show was totally worth it.
In a month or so, most of you will be at least familiar with the story of The Last Five Years, since the movie adaptation with the popular Anna Kendrick is coming soon to theaters in Utah, and is already playing in select theaters in the U.S. But if you skip the play and only watch the movie, you would be missing out on a fresh, versatile, aesthetic experience, as well as symbolism and metaphors that, on a stage three feet away from you, are more poignantly obvious than they would be on any screen.
If you go see the Utah Repertory Theater’s performance of this play (and I highly recommend you do!) be aware this is not your typical conquer-the-villain, rescue-the-princess, happily-ever-after musical. You will experience a sometimes too close-to-home, possibly cathartic, emotional roller coaster; you’ll laugh and cry and worry and stare in shock at the choices that the characters (and that everyday people!) make. Director John Sweeney said, “The musical brings out the heart of what people are going through at…points of time [in a relationship]—the young youthful of excitement of when you’re first in love…and the wearing down of life.”* It’s a reflection of how two people could go from romance found to romance lost.
Yet despite the emotional roller coaster, being able to view a romance from the perspectives of both Jamie—played by Rhett Richins, and Cathy—played by Erin Royall Carlson, as he travels forward and she travels backward through their 5-year relationship, brings the realization that their relationship could have worked out, and that they both contributed to its demise with seemingly small yet significant choices. This makes the play truly like a paradoxical tragedy. We see the hope and very real possibility for a strong, equally-yoked, lasting relationship at the same time we see a relationship crumbling before us.
Richins told us, “when Jason R. Brown wrote this musical, it was an autobiographical portrayal of five years of his life.”* Because of this personal attachment the writer/ composer had to the plot, every aspect of the musical has significance. Similarly, the Utah Rep director and actors made thoughtful artistic choices to portray the themes and disconnect of time and perspectives in the musical. They rotated the middle of the set clockwise or counter-clockwise depending on whether they were going backwards or forwards in time, respectively. Cathy was wearing a lot of white or bright colors, perhaps alluding to the hope she still felt that things would work out, contrasting with Jamie’s cooler colors. They also added some contemporary elements that made us laugh and brought us in to the story, like Cathy saying Jamie “doesn’t have to like Taylor Swift” for her to like him, and poking fun at the people who cast Russell Crowe in a musical.
Lighting choices were also significant, and descriptive of their relationship. When Jamie is literally jumping around the stage telling his story of a fictional character Schmuel, Cathy is sitting in the shadows. Sweeney said this was a deliberate choice, “to have one actor sometimes be in the shadows during the other’s song, representing the aloofness of the two and causing the audience to question what’s going on in their relationship and why they are not fully engaged in the main action on the stage.”* “The Schmuel Song,” as told by Jamie, was surprisingly one of my favorite parts, because of Richins’ energy and amazing use of character voices, and because of my wonderment at Cathy’s apparent indifference to his enthusiasm. It is a kind of play within a play, as Jamie tells Cathy the story of a man and a woman who had to learn to value the time they had with each other.
Another of my favorite parts was Cathy’s audition scene. It was not only hilariously performed, with snarky side comments about the accompanist going too fast, and also excellent changes in voice timbre, etc., but I’m sure most actors can also relate to the anxiety of auditions gone awry. Not only that, for her auditions she sang the song “If you come home to me, I’ll wear a sweeter smile” to empty chairs on the stage, which to me was a poignant reminder of the fact that Jamie and her were slowly becoming absent from each other’s lives.
The small, live band was an unexpected treat, and an integral part of the show, under the direction of Anne Puzey. They added to the dramatic effect, because they could follow the actors’ changes in tempo. They were right on the same level of the stage with the actors as well, which made them almost a part of the cast, especially in the scene where Cathy is auditioning for a musical (another play within a play, if you will).
Also, because the musicians were on stage with the actors, we paid more attention to repeated musical themes that accentuated the story. In a lot of the songs, the strings used percussive techniques, like playing col legno (on the wood of the bow) or tapping the wooden backs of their instruments, to make the songs sound more mechanical—like a clock. In the song “The Next Ten Minutes,” the two actors blended perfectly on “I do” when they said their vows. It was one of the most romantic and beautiful parts, especially from three feet away, and the only part in the play where they actually look in each other’s eyes, but the minor chords in the music playing during the ceremony gave a sad, almost foreboding tone, with multiple repeated phrases, kind of like an alarm clock, or a reminder that time was running out.
They couldn’t have chosen a better cast. For two actors to keep the audience enthralled at every minute, when they are basically singing multiple monologues and changing emotion with every scene, is an incredible feat. Carlson said they couldn’t look at each other in certain scenes, and they had to keep acting with sometimes completely different emotions than each other. “Going from being emotionally scarred to portraying being blissfully in love…Reversing my timeline… was one of the hardest things. Vocally it’s been trying, but so fun and rewarding.”*
Not only did the actors’ emotional energy and involvement of the audience keep us engaged, I was amazed at how fast their costume changes were. On top of that they helped move the set as well! One thing I noticed was that this need for speed, and their involvement in every aspect of the play, sometimes caused minute wardrobe malfunctions and probably contributed to their need to adjust their mics during a few of the scenes. Regardless of these small technical distractions, for an opening night, it was superb.
The actors’ alternating use of their fourth wall seemed incredibly well thought-out and deliberate. At times they seemed to be talking to us in the audience when they were defending their position or telling their side of the story, as if we were a silent jury.
My friends and I were talking about the musical’s themes and what we loved about the story and songs for a long time afterward, and I would recommend this play to anyone. Whether you are in the throes of a budding romance or experiencing the painful pangs of a lost love, everyone has something to learn from the story of “The Last Five Years.” Hurry and see it before you, or your car, get caught up in the wear and tear of life and run out of time.
*(As I only had small spaces in the margins of my program in which to write, and no voice recorder, the actors and directors quotes are paraphrased, with some punctuation added, and written to the best that my shorthand and my memory could offer. I apologize for any missing articles or other essential parts of speech, but am willing to take small partial credit for anything that made it sound poetic.)
Utah Repertory Theater Company is presenting The Last Five Years by Jason Robert Brown Feb. 27-March 14, varying showtimes, at Sugar Space Studio Theater; and March 20-22 at Ogden Ziegfeld Theater, varying showtimes. Tickets are $10-18 depending on the showtime and place. ***Content is PG-13 (some swear words, difficult/strong emotional themes). See websites for more details.
Ogden Ziegfeld Theater 3934 Washington Blvd, Ogden, UT 84403 (855) 944-2787 http://www.theziegfeldtheater.