When you hear about a musical that even people who don’t really like musicals enjoy, you might have some justifiable skepticism. But when the person saying that is Patricia Zentilli and she’s talking about The Last Five Years, playing at The Roxy on Gateway until November 15 (as she did when I interviewed her for my preview), you should believe her. Jason Robert Brown’s musical is more like a series of monologues than the fluffy, repetitive show tunes musicals have an unfortunate reputation for.
The Last Five Years tells the story of Jamie Wellerstein (played by Jeremy Baumung) and Cathy Hiatt (Patricia Zentilli), whose relationship lasts five years. In that time, Jamie quickly becomes a successful novelist at a young age while, despite her big dreams, Cathy struggles to have a career as an actress in New York City. And while the two are very much in love, the difference in their professional success eventually pulls them apart. The musical asks if a relationship can survive the professional success of one party, but not the other.
The answer is pretty obvious from the opening song, but the way in which Jamie and Cathy’s story is told by writer and composer Jason Robert Brown is so smart. The story is told in a series of songs alternating between Jamie and Cathy, with Cathy’s songs starting at the end of their relationship and Jamie’s songs starting at the beginning. But these are more than songs – they’re monologues set to music. The Last Five Years takes my favourite part of musicals – a feeling that’s so strong that you can’t do anything except sing it – and combines it with lyrics that are more like monologues. The lyrics use words economically, they reveal the character’s inner thoughts and perception, every word has meaning, and they drive the plot forward, which allows the musical to cover a huge amount of plot and keeps it at a lean 90 minutes.
But the best part of the way The Last Five Years is told is the foreshadowing it allows for and how affecting having the alternating songs following two time paths can be. Jason Robert Brown’s lyrics are intelligent – so much so, that I didn’t notice most of the foreshadowing and parallels when I watched the movie. I got more of them seeing Theatre Network’s performance, and then going home and re-listening to the songs, I found even more of the foreshadowing ‘Easter eggs’. For example, notice the context in which Cathy sings about “miles and piles of you” in both ‘See I’m Smiling’ and ‘I Can Do Better Than That’. The contrast caused both by alternating joyful songs about the hope they have for their future and the contrast between the foreshadowing Jason Robert Brown has written into the lyrics are heartbreaking. The Last Five Years doesn’t pull any punches in terms of revealing how the story ends (Cathy tells us in the first song that they’re separating), but instead focuses on the whirlwind journey their five year relationship takes them on.
To help tell that story, production designer Cory Sincennes has created yet another interesting set that augments the story of the play. In transforming the space formerly known as C103 into The Roxy on Gateway, Theatre Network has arranged the space into an alley set with seating on both sides of the space. Cory has transformed that space into a road littered with moving boxes and belongings all in white. It’s like a blank canvas across which the characters tell the story of their success at their different art forms and their relationship, evoking the idea of traveling through a continuum of time.
For this production, Theatre Network has cast two wonderfully emotive singers and actors – Jeremy Baumung as Jamie and Patricia Zentilli as Cathy Hiatt. The way that each played their character was complimentary to one another – mirroring the journey the songs take the audience on. The last time I saw Jeremy on stage was during Catalyst Theatre’s Hunchback (which Ana and I reviewed for Sound + Noise) and I forgot how expressive he is and how powerful his voice is when he belts out big numbers. Of course, I saw Patricia in Theatre Network’s The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble by Beth Graham last year, but The Last Five Years really allowed her to show off her flexibilitity as we watch her character’s transformation from sad and jaded to youthful and joyous as she travels backwards in time across the five years the play spans. In contrast to Jeremy, even during the happy songs from the beginning of Jamie and Cathy’s relationship Patricia was less physically expressive than Jeremy, focusing instead on using her facial expressions or stance to add whimsy or sombreness into the songs. This contrast in physicality worked incredibly well to help explain each character’s personality and journey throughout the play.
I also loved how Jeremy and Patricia developed chemistry despite only directly interacting for one song (“The Next Ten Minutes”). In all other songs, when their character was interacting with their partner, Patricia and Jeremy mimed as though they were talking to or looking at their partner with such commitment that it created an intense tension of wanting to finally see the physical interaction between the two characters together in front of you, that it was a relief when they finally came together in “The Next Ten Minutes”.
Being about how two people can grow apart as a result of the difference in their professional success, The Last Five Years is also extremely balanced – both in terms of the script, but also the way Patricia and Jeremy played their characters. It’s clear that in rehearsals with Director Bradley Moss they hadn’t decided that one character was more in the wrong and the main cause of their separation. Both actors played their characters with sense that they were admitting they were flawed, but essentially good, without conveying their own judgement of the other character to the audience. Because the songs are so narrative, it would have been very easy for the actors to convey judgement of the other character through their physical or facial expressions, but the actors avoided that, leaving audiences to form their own conceptions. This frees the audience to fully experience and understand both character’s journeys and actions. What this did for me was allow me to see who I personally identified with at each part in the play and why, moving back and forth between understanding one character’s actions and point of view and then the other’s.
Of course, I can’t end the review without talking about the magic the on-stage musicans, Daniel Gervais, Erik Mortimer, and Diana Nuttall added. I’m not knowledgeable enough to tell you how well they played, but it adds a whole other dimension to the production when there’s a pianist, cellist and violinist on stage serenading both the characters and the audience. Maybe it’s how I’m conditioned to listen to music, but having the band at centre stage added instant romance and emotiveness to the production.
PS – want even more The Last Five Years? Check out the What It Is Podcast’s Episode 88: the Next 70ish Minutes, which includes an interview with Jeremy Baumung, Patricia Zentilli, Erik Mortimer and Bradley Moss.