From the moment that Katie Rose Clarke started singing “Still Hurting” in the opening seconds of the Long Wharf Theatre’s production of the Jason Robert Brown musical, “The Last Five Years,” my teeth clenched, my chest heaved, my anxiety level rose and I knew immediately that I was in good hands.
Because, honestly, Brown’s two-hander about the dissolution of a marriage in the early 21st century should have that effect on an audience. Anyone who’s been through the break-up of a once-intense relationship will find a lot familiar here and know that Brown is spot-on in exploring the depth of emotion inherent in such a story. His lyrics indeed describe quite realistically the highs and lows of a contemporary relationship, particularly the thrill of the chase, the excitement of discovering how your interests and ambitions seem to overlap, the intensity of those initial feelings and, at the other end, the depth of loss and grief and denial when the relationship ends. His music in general nicely amplifies the mood of each of his songs and helps to signal the changing feelings and attitudes of the couple at the center of the evening’s action. Brown's rich score here portends the beuty and fullness of his current musical, "The Bridges of Madison County" (with a book by Marsha Norman), which unfortunately closes on Broadway this weekend. He is also the composer of the musical "13" which enjoyed a workshop at Goodspeed Musicals before moving on to New York, as well as "Honeymoon in Vegas," a hit at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey this past fall and expected to reach the Main Stem next season.
As one might expect, Brown tells the story of "The Last Five Years" from the perspective of both characters, Jamie and Cathy, but through a device that proves to be much more than just a theatrical gimmick. He has Jamie tell the man’s story chronologically from its beginning at a club where he exuberantly sings of at last finding a "Shiksa Goddess," while he has Cathy begin at the end, bereft at Jamie’s seemingly incomprehensible exit, with the tale emerging in reverse order concluding at its beginning. This adds an additional level of suspense to the story, as we become curious about the other’s perspective on certain events that we’ve already been privy to, for as we are all aware, there are two sides to every story.
Jamie and Cathy each tell their side of the story in individual solos, except for the moment when both timelines converge in the middle of the show, which also happens to depict their wedding, and is the only time in the show when they appear in a scene together and are able to duet, on the exultant “The Next Ten Minutes,” a combination marriage proposal and statement of vows. Of course, the entire evening is overshadowed by the audience’s knowledge that the relationship will end, adding a melancholic air to even the most optimistic and hopeful songs that we encounter, realizing that a gentle stab of pain is an important part of the composer’s intentions.
Of course, our investment in the story is aided significantly by the two marvelous performers who bring Cathy and Jamie to life, the aforementioned Clarke and Adam Halpin, respectively. That they capture our hearts from the beginning reveals their ability to project the honesty of their two characters, through their ability to convey heart-felt emotion through their strong and sturdy singing voices. Both are attractive 20-something performers who present an immediate likeability, enhanced by Paul Tazewell’s carefully selected outfits which reflect their youth, attitudes and, if you follow closely backwards and forwards, their growth.
Director Gordon Edelstein, the Long Wharf’s Artistic Director, has mounted the show so that it showcases the talents of both cast members as well as helping to make clear, as much as possible, the trajectory of each individual story. He has also assured that the two actors’ body language also conveys their emotions at any specific point in the evening to underline some of the more subtler dynamics that each character may or may not be aware they are experiencing.
Having seen several productions of “The Last Five Years” at other regional theaters over the years, I found that this one made the progression of the plot the easiest to understand, particularly in a couple of scenes immediately following the wedding scene in which it can be easy for an audience to get confused. Brown, for a justifiable necessary reason in his plotting, has one character make two trips to a summer theatre in Ohio, one before the wedding and one after, which threaten to meet each other coming and going in the reverse-forward movement of the story. This is really the only situation that could cause any type of concern, but Edelstein succeeds in making this obvious.
This clarity is helped by the triumphal simplicity of Eugene Lee’s set design, which consists of boxes and packing crates lining all four sides of the Long Wharf’s thrust stage with two doors along a wall at the back, along with a table and some chairs which can be pressed into service to represent the front seat of a car, a table in a restaurant and even a double bed. This serves to focus the work even more intensely on Cathy and Jamie. Lee has also painted a huge hands-less clock on the floor of the set, which turns out to be on a turntable that accommodates some character movement. In a clever bit of staging, Edelstein situates the marriage proposal scene on this clock, with four chairs becoming a rowboat in Central Park, that the turntable allows to mimic actual rowing. The scene starts from Jamie’s forward looking direction as the boat moves clockwise through the proposal and then, after the couple’s duet at their wedding, resumes now from Cathy’s reverse perspective as the rowboat moves back counterclockwise as she reveals her responses to Jamie’s earlier comments.
Lighting designer Ben Stanton is called upon to carefully pinpoint the action in the various scenes, since Clarke and Halpin generally remain on stage during their partner’s scenes, but in the shadows and often with their backs to the audience. Thus it is a delightful surprise when he finally gets to bathe the stage in full light during the wedding sequence.
But I think it will be Brown’s music and the heart-breaking performances of the two actors that audiences will remember. Both Clarke and Halpin succeed in giving us intimate glimpses of the dreams and fears that impact their respective characters’ dreams, as we begin to understand the missed clues and unspoken ambitions that color the relationship as it evolves and shatters. We gradually learn that Cathy and Jamie, she a wanna-be musical comedy actress and he an aspiring novelist, entered their five year journey with divergent expectations and needs that were never completely shared or listened to in those early heady days of romantic ecstasy.
For a deep, rich musical experience that surprisingly captures all the emotions of a real relationship, anchored by two appealing performers who create characters you can genuinely root for, “The Last Five Years” is well worth a visit to the Long Wharf. And to pick up all the details of the time-bending through line, it may be well worth a second trip just to see how Brown and Edelstein pulled it off.
“The Last Five Years” runs through Sunday, June 1 on the Long Wharf’s C. Newton Schenck Mainstage. For information and tickets, call the Long Wharf Box Office at 203.787.4282 or 800.782.8497, or visit their website at www.longwharf.org.
To keep up with theatrical events in Connecticut or western Massachusetts, consider subscribing to the Hartford Arts Examiner and/or the Springfield Art Examiner by clicking on the word “Subscribe” at the top of this article near the byline. A copy of each new article will be sent directly to your inbox.