Ninety minutes. Forteen numbers. Two actors. One love story. Sounds easy enough, right?
The Last Five Years, like successful relationships, is harder than it looks. Jason Robert Brown’s 2001 song cycle of love won and lost is a precocious early-career project fiendishly difficult to perform (and revered by musical theatre heads as a result). The score is a pop-pourri of influences, with dastardly wide singing range. The story moves forwards and backwards, at once, as the protagonists, at times intensely unlikeable, negotiate the past and present. All with barely a prop or set piece, generally, to speak of.
It’s also a richly rewarding piece of music theatre, imbued with a wit and wisdom (albeit in a familiar narrowcast of young white privilege) rare to the form. But good luck getting it right.
Ensemble Theatre certainly casts well. Elise McCann (a charming Miss Honey in the Matilda national tour) and Christian Charisiou (Cry-Baby at the Hayes) are terrific as the needy aspiring actress Cathy and cocky emerging writer Jamie. But they’re both exposed by empty design and unimaginative direction. It never takes off like it should.
Jamie is “gliding smooth as a figure skater … riding hot as a rocket blast” (Moving Too Fast) with an acclaimed debut novel. Cathy, still waiting for her break, is “up every morning at six and standing in line with two hundred girls who are younger and thinner than me” (Climbing Uphill). Robert Brown’s cannily written songs get at the search for relationship equilibrium when careers are on difficult trajectories. “I will not fail so you can be comfortable, Cathy,” sings Jamie in the acrid-sweet If I Didn’t Believe In You. “I will not lose because you can’t win.”
McCann and Charisiou negotiate the wild tonal shifts – and some wild melodic runs – with real skill. They lean into the youthful foibles to create two believably dreamy New Yorkers. But they get no help from the design team (set by Michael Scott-Mitchell), who provide only a chair and two dizzying, awkwardly employed turntables (different orbits, get it?). The lighting (Karen Norris) alone must create time, place and any sense of intimacy, which it naturally mostly fails to do.
More problematically, director Elsie Edgerton-Till (The Plant) keeps the timelines separate by making each number a lonely solo. When Jamie pleads with Cathy to hang in there in playful cheer The Schmuel Song, bounding about the stage, she sits unresponsive facing away from him. Against the black void, no performer can hope to fill the space on their own. And too many scenes are devoid of emotional attachment.
Similarly, the lone piano accompaniment from Daryl Wallis dampens the whole show. What a shame the production couldn’t spring for a stringed instrument or two to lift the performance out of the rehearsal room feeling.
The Last Five Years is bucket list stuff for musical theatre fans. But, despite some fine performances, this isn’t the production to win anyone new over.
The Last Five Years plays the Ensemble Theatre until April 27 (Photos by Phil Erbacher)