By Joe Jennison
Anamosa - Two twenty-somethings meet and fall in love, get married, struggle with careers and family, and break up in just five year’s time. That is the basic premise of Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years.
The musical play would seem like any other standard musical comedy about love and marriage except for the fact that this play tells its story not only from two perspectives (his and hers), but also from two places in time: the male in this story begins at the beginning of the relationship and moves forward; the female in this story starts from the end of the relationship and moves backwards.
Originally produced in 2001, the play’s simple production values, small cast and non-traditional story-telling style has made it very popular with theaters and audiences alike. As produced at the Starlighters II Theatre in Anamosa, the musical play is a thought-provoking, enjoyable and quick evening of theater. Anyone who has been in and out of a relationship in a similar time frame will find plenty to relate to, and Brown’s music and lyrics are fun and funny and accessible.
The play opens with Cathy (Amy Friedl Stoner) singing about the end of a relationship. The song, “Still Hurting,” performed by Stoner is sad and poignant and heart-breaking, with lines such as “Jamie arrived at the end of the line; Jamie’s convinced that the problems are mine; Jamie is probably feeling just fine; And I’m still hurting.” This number is juxtaposed nicely in the very next scene by Jamie’s (Isaac Helgens) “Shiksa Goddess.” This up-tempo number sung just after he has met Cathy contains some very funny lines including “If you had a pierced tongue, that wouldn’t matter; If you once were in jail or you once were a man; If your mother and your brother had ‘relations’ with each other; And your father was connected to the Gotti clan; I’d say, ‘Well, nobody’s perfect’; It’s tragic but it’s true; I’d say, ‘Hey! Hey! Shiksa goddess! I’ve been waiting for someone like you."
This is part of the charm of this musical – that these two characters are performing together at two different times in their lives, and at two different times in this relationship. This allows Brown to comment on the end of the relationship at the beginning, and vice versa. The final number has Cathy (just after their first kiss) singing “Goodbye Until Tomorrow”; and on stage with her, Jamie (after he has just moved out) singing “I Could Never Rescue You.” And, although the audience often sees them on stage at the same time, the two characters don’t see each other, and are forced to sing individually to a “memory” of a person or a situation that has moved on in time.
The scenic design by director Brian Glick and KC Kiner, sets up the evening well. A large clock permanently set to 10:09 stares back at the audience from the stage. A smaller version of the same clock is permanently reflected on the stage floor. The two performers sing and interact and argue in front of, next to, and on top of the timepieces reiterating for all of us the volatile nature of time itself. Maybe if the characters had truly understood how precious time is things wouldn’t have ended (or started?) as they did.
At play’s opening and ending, director Glick creates a small pas de deux that has the two actors directly interacting just before they take to their separate corners of the stage to tell their different versions of the story. A host of stagehands and technicians create the illusion of multiple scenes in time through the use of large set pieces that come and go very quickly adding to the speed of the show. A boat dock slips on and off the stage with ease, piles of books appear and disappear instantly, and loose leaf typewritten pages seem to fall magically from the ceiling.
A small hidden three-piece instrumental ensemble provides great musical support and the aforementioned set offers a lot of places for director Glick and his cast to create some interesting stage pictures. A wedding scene, for instance, has the two characters singing together on a platform in front of the large clock as rose petals fall from the rafters. Almost instinctively, Helgens quietly and tenderly picks the petals out of Stoner’s hair as they say their I dos. Beautiful.
Stoner is obviously very comfortable center stage and her voice is well-trained and fits the demands of the score. I loved watching her stand tall and sing her heart out as she powerfully proves her worth in this relationship. She is gorgeous and confident in this piece and shines in several numbers including “A Summer in Ohio” and “I Can Do Better Than That.”
Helgens, by contrast, doesn’t seem to match Stoner vocally. Yes, as an actor, he does seem to understand his complex (and at times unlikeable) character, and he does hit each and every emotionally complex acting note. However, he does seem to struggle with the score, and in this respect seems mismatched onstage with a thoroughbred musical comedy performer such as Stoner. A rock number in Scene Four titled “Moving Too Fast” does allow him to show off his voice and style, proving that he can deliver the musical goods when the score falls within his comfort level. But a regular switch from chest voice to falsetto and back again several times throughout the show was at times awkward and uncomfortable to watch and hear.
That said, I did like this play, the music, the set and the performances and would recommend it to anyone who has a memory of lost love. And throughout the play, thanks to Glick’s set design and staging, I was reminded again and again of the very essence of relationships and broken hearts: Time heals.
This show has closed, but Starlighters' next show is None Of The Above, which opens June 17.
Joe Jennison is a freelance writer and playwright living in Mount Vernon. Comments should be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org