2/18/2022 THE LAST FIVE YEARS Jennie T. Anderson Concert Series
ACROSS THE YEARS
(Bias Alert: I have worked with Co-Music-Director and Pianist Gamble several times and tend to view their work through approval-tinted glasses. I’m also quite fond of this concert series in general and this musical in particular.)
One of my favorite musicals of the Last Twenty 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 that I learned of this streaming Jennie T. Anderson Concert Series production.
But first, let me give a timeline that hints at the scope of my obsession with this musical:
2020 – The Southwark Theatre (of London) streams a video version that knocked my socks off.
2017 – I designed lights for Marietta Theatre Company’s production.
2016 – Out of Box Theatre’s production does not go unappreciated.
2015 – The Movie Version is released on-demand for Valentine’s Day.
2008 – I designed lights for the inaugural production of Next Stage Theatre.
2007 – The Atlanta Premier is at Actor’s Express.
2002 – I first hear the Cast CD and am quickly smitten.
Before I express my love for this new production, let me cut-and-edit a template I designed many 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 Sunday. 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" date. 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 (including this one), 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 and will come after.
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 twenty years. As noted above, I've seen many productions and worked two others. I can't wait to watch this recording.
And now I have. And it was the best way imaginable to while away a gloomy hour or so.
There are a few new ideas here I haven’t seen before, all of which work beautifully.
Most obvious is Jono Davis’ “dueling pianos” concept – each character gets their own grand piano and accompanist – Gamble for Cathy and Holt McCarley for Jamie. Each is a character in and of themselves, defiantly “on the side” of their particular side-of-the-argument. It should be noted that Mr. McCarley subs in as the “why does this piano player hate me” accompanist for Cathy’s audition, eliciting some angry side-eye from Gamble. This concept has the added benefit of keeping the characters far apart, literally on opposite sides of the stage (screen), underscoring the separation and mis-communication motifs of the libretto. Except for the mid-point wedding, which connects the pianos in a yin-yang-like configuration that allows the characters’ own yin and yang find full actualization.
Another new idea was moving the final part of “Good-bye Until Tomorrow” from five-years ago to now, so Cathy is no longer in the glow of first-date rapture, but in the pall of post-break-up despair. It’s a choice that truly adds punch to the already emotionally powerful juxtaposition that’s going on, and I (now) wonder why no previous director thought of it, especially since it gives Cathy the final moment, as she packs away the clock Jamie gave her for Christmas, those too few years before.
The starts of the show are, of course, the actors and the pianists. India Tyree is heart-breakingly beautiful and vocally overwhelming. She captured my heart from the opening notes and didn’t let go, even when her suspicions were unwarranted, more so when those suspicions were earned. The irony here is that she is far more talented than the character she portrays. James Allen McCune is equally compelling, overtly charming as expected, imaginatively creative, and, again, heartbreaking when his baser instincts overwhelm his better nature.
The Music Direction by Gamble and Mr. McCarley is spot-on for the individual characters, with Chris Brent Davis ** being a unifying force as overall MD and co-director (with Candy McLellan, who doubles as choreographer, and whose cheesy steps for “Summer in Ohio” are every provincial theatre-goers worst musical nightmare). If I have one complaint about the production, it is with some of the video editing. Although I appreciated the individual musicians of the orchestra getting some close-up love, it sometimes happens in a manner that distracts from the characters, who, (IMHO) should be the main focus. Fortunately. it’s never TOO distracting, and the cuts themselves are most often in rhythm to the music.
The Jennie T. Anderson Concert 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 and rapturously, beautifully performed. I am so glad they chose to offer it as a stream rather than live, because the intimacy of this production would have been totally lost in the cavernous Anderson venue.
I, for one, can't wait to watch it again!
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #JennieTAndersonConcert #LastFiveYears)
** Mr. Davis also provides an elegantly smooth vocal performance of a new(er) Jason Robert Brown song. "Someone to Fall Back on," over the end titles.