11/28/2020     THE LAST FIVE YEARS                        Broadway On Demand / Southwark Theatre

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RELATIVITY

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One of my favorite musicals of the Last {More Than Five} Years has been Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years, an examination of a doomed marriage told in a complex web of time relativity (his story is told chronologically, her story is told backwards).  So it was with great expectations I laid my Visa down for this new On-Demand version from Broadway on Demand, taped at London’s Southwark Theatre just last month.

 

Before I express my unconditional love for this production, surely the best of the many L5Y’s I have seen, let me cut-and-edit a review I wrote a number of years ago to give you a feel of what the play is about.


The Last Five Years isn’t over and done. It is available for view through tomorrow, November 29.  I'm assuming that, even as I write, you've either missed it, seen it, or have plans to watch it. If I had any sense, I'd end this here, and say "Good-bye" until my next column.

The play ends with Jamie and Cathy singing goodbye to each other. But they're five years apart in time -- Cathy is saying "Goodbye" after their first "Were Falling in Love" all-nighter. Jamie is saying "Goodbye" forever -- the compromises, the emotional battlefields, his own lies have all become too much. The juxtaposition is striking. And it gives the characters equal validity, equal blame, equal pain. The balance that started out in Cathy's favor has found equilibrium through the time-direction conceit.

The second half of the play is the degeneration of the marriage from Jamie's point-of-view. (Cathy's insecurities and passive-aggressive behaviors have, in his eyes, driven them apart.) It is also the build-up to marriage from Cathy's point-of-view. (Her career is taking off just as his fame does. They are each other's rock, each other's inspiration.) It is here we hear her funny audition sequence, echoing what goes through all our heads as we enter the pressure cooker of an acting career. And, it is here we hear him being seduced by wealth, by fame, by his own talent, and by the someone(s) who fill the space created by Cathy's suspicions and accusations and extended absences-in-Ohio.

The middle of the musical is one of the most achingly sad weddings you are likely to see. Or to be more accurate, it is one of the happier weddings you are likely to see. What hurts is knowing what is to come, sensing what came before, seeing their happiness, and hearing the cello-rich sadness of the music. In most productions, this is the only time Jamie and Cathy get to touch, to kiss. And it breaks my heart. 


The first half of the play is the degeneration of the marriage from Cathy's point-of-view. (Cathy's career sending her to the wilds of Ohio bad-summer-stock, which exacerbates her suspicions of Jamie's is-he? affairs.) It is also the build-up to marriage from Jamie's point-of-view. (His writing career taking off. Kathy's Acting/Singing career finding a foothold at his urgings.) It is here we hear his story about "Shmuel," a tailor who is able to find happiness by turning back the hands of time. And it is here we hear about her "Summer in Ohio," a show-stoppingly funny number that, strangely enough, is a foundation for everything that came before.

The play starts with Cathy's pain-filled solo as she reads the "Goodbye" note Jamie will write at the end. This is shortly followed (five years earlier) by Jamie's elation as he finally finds that "Shiksa Goddess" he knows will drive his family to distraction.

I've loved the songs of The Last Five Years  for the last {more-than-five} years. I've seen many productions and worked two others.  I can't wait to watch this recording.

 

And now I have.  It drew me in from the start with a sequence of Manhattan sounds that climax in an image of Kathy sitting at a grand piano, Jamie standing behind her playing the opening chords of her first number, an image, which of course, will be role-reversed at the end.  The piano, in fact, dominates this production, with the actors (seemingly) accompanying each other’s solos.

 

So, yes, they are both on stage for the entire play, and in each other’s scenes.  But rather than undercutting the non-communication at the root of their problems, this device actually accentuates it.  They may be in each other’s scenes, but they’re focused on the piano, not on the partner.  Director Jonathan O’Boyle takes many opportunities for them to sit on the piano bench back-to-back, and the actors (Molly Lynch and Oli Higginson) completely succeed at the impossible task of finding emotional “truths” of different (yet simultaneous) moments – modified rapture abounds as happiness and anger share each moment and make each moment come alive.  They both astound by their ability to remain in their own time while being with their partner.

 

There are so many “little touches” that add to the enormous appeal of this production, moments that underscore the time-tapestry – at the end of “Shmuel,” Jamie gifts Kathy an empty watch case and Kathy ends the scene by removing the watch she’s been wearing and putting it in the case he holds.  At the end of the wedding sequence, she removes her wedding ring and gives it to him.  Even a little touch like Kathy giving an “Ick” grimace at her “Handful after handful of Doritos” line during “I’m a Part of That” shows they are out of synch from day one.

 

And these two actors are absolutely superb, with belt voices that get at the soul of the music, rattling our toenails as we witness.  When Ms. Lynch breaks apart in “I’m Still Hurting,” we ache for her.  When she is over-the-moon happy in “Goodbye Until Tomorrow,” we still ache.  When she pulls out the stops on “I Can Do Better Than That”, lounging over Jamie, and “riding” the piano like a lounge singer, her desperation and inevitable disappointment are loud and clear.   She achieves the impossible dichotomy of being more talented than the character she portrays.

 

Mr. Higginson is perfect at finding Jamie’s charm, at finding his talent (especially in his reading of Jamie’s novel), and driving home his love for Kathy, as well as his disappointment at her disappointment.  He totally “owns” “Shmuel” and “Shiksa Goddess,” and his desperation in his later songs is as evident as his joy in his earlier.

 

So, the concept of the piano as the focus of the piece, despite its apparent disconnect with the characters, is strangely compelling.  I don’t know if the actors were actually playing or simply miming -- they also play a guitar {“Shmuel”) and a ukulele (“Summer in Ohio”) and Kathy sadly strikes resounding bells during “Nobody Needs to Know” -- but they give every indication of doing so;  that they punctuate some moments by NOT playing makes the device even more effective.

 

The Southwark’s Theatre’s production of The Last Five Years is an emotional roller-coaster, and is a must-see for anyone either new to the show, or as familiar with it as am I.  It is elegantly staged (the venue is small, and the theatre is Covid-protocol empty) and rapturously, beautifully performed.  If this video ever becomes permanently available, I guarantee it will join my collection.

 

In the meantime, until tomorrow, you can access it here: 

 

https://www.broadwayondemand.com/series/TetlTDcAiDnh-the-last-five-years

 

I, for one, can't wait to watch it again!

     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com    @bk_rudy    #SouthwarkTheatre #LastFiveYears)