The clock on the wall of Cathy’s Manhattan bedsit ticks backwards. Scene by scene we watch the struggling stage actress’ five-year love affair in reverse: from miserable break-up through to giddy hook-up.
But Jamie’s story only moves forward. In The Last Five Years, a celebrated one-act musical two-hander, the aspiring writer is “riding hot as a rocket blast”, as he sings in Moving Too Fast, head-over-heels for Cathy while his career meteors — only for the love to eventually turn sour.
The device in Jason Robert Brown’s melodious near-song cycle presents, often palpably, a familiar juxtaposition in relationships: love and loss, success and failure. As Jamie sings in If I Didn’t Believe In You: “I will not fail so you can be comfortable, Cathy / I will not lose because you can’t win”. How do we manage inevitably unequal relationships? Only when the forwards-and-backwards narrative arcs meet in the middle of the 80-minute show — a romantic proposal in Central Park — are they ever on the same page. And as we’ve already learned, not really even then.
To the musical theatre nerds who have loved the prolifically performed show since its Chicago debut in 2001, it all makes perfect sense. But I wondered what a first-timer would make of director Chris Parker’s attempt, which opened with likeable leads Josh Piterman and Verity Hunt-Ballard at fortyfivedownstairs over the weekend. Aside from the regressive clock there’s few clues in the unimaginative staging as to what we’re watching. A distinct lack of polish to the production doesn’t help.
Indeed, there are times when the clearly under-rehearsed production runs off the rails. Young musical director Daniel Puckey demonstrates little control over his strings-heavy band, led by a battered electronic piano, and hidden behind a curtain he’s no help to the cast who are never quite in synch. (A note to directors and producers: there’s a reason why conductors stood at the foot of the stage for centuries, to guide not just the music but the performances.) The sound mixing, too, was poor, often overawing the actors. Blocking and lighting was clumsy in parts.
Piterman and Hunt-Ballard, two fine performers, are emotionally resonant but not always vocally. Piterman’s rich tenor was pretty well tuned on opening night, but Hunt-Ballard — who has delivered some of the finest music theatre performances in Australia on much bigger stages in recent times — was oddly out of sorts in numbers like Summer In Ohio. The (lack of) direction, which seems mostly to blame, makes nobody comfortable. Including the audience.
It will no doubt get better. But fans of the piece could be pretty disappointed by the outcome. And those coming to it fresh will wonder — Robert Brown’s bright, bounding tunes aside — just why anybody liked it in the first place.