Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The Last Five Years
The plot centers on writer Jamie and actress Cathy who are both in their twenties and depicted as a typical aspiring, artsy couple; the success of one is countered with the struggles of the other. Over a five-year period, we see moments in their lives as the two meet, fall in love, get married, fight, and fall apart. These are set against the backdrop of Jamie finding almost immediate success as a writer and having his first book published when he was in his mid-20s, while Cathy continually struggles in her career as a working actress.
To tell this story, the musical uses a theatrical gimmick: The show begins with Cathy at the end of the five-year relationship reading a letter Jamie just wrote her and each of her subsequent songs moves backward in time, ending at the couple's first date, while Jamie begins the show at that same first date and moves forward in time until we see him write, at the end of the show, that break-up letter to Cathy. It's an intriguing, though sometimes confusing device as the two characters move through time in different directions, and the show is basically a series of solo songs. The only time the couple sing together is around the middle of the 90-minute single act, on the duet "The Next Ten Minutes" which takes place at their wedding.
While the musical isn't entirely autobiographical, there are certain moments in Brown's past that mirror those in the show. Brown won the Tony Award for Best Score for Parade when he was only 28 and Jamie's publishing success is also when he is in his 20s, and Brown's first marriage was also short. Fortunately, even though Brown wrote the music, lyrics and book, and Jamie is clearly modeled on himself, he doesn't paint Jamie as being innocent; in fact Jamie is clearly the antagonist, as he is self-centered and has at least one affair. Brown's lyrics present both characters as fleshed out and three-dimensional, and the score is gorgeous, with soaring ballads, comical tunes, moving melodies, and some truly beautiful compositions. However, due to the way their stories are shown, there is limited connection between the two characters; the score sometimes comes across as a series of exceptionally crafted solo story songs that just happen to involve the same two characters.
Dwayne Hartford's direction is impressive, with only one small quibble. Hartford and his cast deliver realistic, layered, natural performances. His staging wisely uses every inch of Sarah Harris' gorgeous set, which features a beautiful New York City skyscraper cityscape background to clearly set the location, along with a turntable that works well to keep the scene changes brisk. Hartford also incorporates projections that list the date for many of the scenes, which helps to depict the shifting times and how Cathy's story goes backward while Jamie's goes forward. The only downside is that, due to the band being situated toward the front of the stage and taking up about one quarter of the stage space, the majority of the action must be delivered center stage or stage left where the turntable is located. This means the audience on the left side of the auditorium has to constantly turn their attention to the right.
Fortunately, that's the only quibble in this otherwise perfect production. As Jamie, Šime Košta has a flawless singing voice and his energy and conviction to the character make us care for him more than in other productions of the show I've seen. We believe, at first, that he's finally met the girl of his dreams and can't wait to spend his life with her and then, as the responsibilities of his career begins to pull him away from Cathy, we see how his smug and self-centered side takes over. With a warm and earthy yet also powerful and gritty (at times) singing voice, Alyssa Chiarello paints Cathy as an extremely powerful woman, but also a woman who is insecure and deeply hurting when we first meet her. Chiarello's strong presence fleshes the character out and makes Cathy less of a victim and not the weak wet blanket I've seen in past productions, offering more balance to the characters and ultimately to the musical.
Music director Craig Bohmler and the fantastic five-piece band deliver skilled playing throughout. Sara Lindsey's costumes are character perfect and plentiful, which helps to clarify the passage of time, and Nathaniel White's lighting is a lovely mix of colors, hues and shadows. The sound design by Marie Quinn ensures that every note and lyric is crystal clear.
While The Last Five Years still lacks, somewhat, in delivering a true deep connection between these characters, since all but one of the numbers are solos, with fifteen soaring songs by Brown and two identifiable characters, along with a heartbreaking yet somewhat hopeful conclusion and a fantastic cast, creative aspects and direction, Phoenix Theatre's production is highly rewarding.
The Last Five Years runs through April 2, 2023 at The Phoenix Theatre Company, 1825 N Central Avenue, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, please visit phoenixtheatre.com or by call 602-254-2151.
Director/ Musical Staging: Dwayne Hartford
Cast (in alphabetical order):
*Members of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors & stage managers in the U.S.