The first ten minutes or so of The Last Five Years (L5Y) are among the best of anything I’ve reviewed this year so far. The wow hits even before the first calliope-like notes of “Still Hurting” – one of the rare species of breakup songs so beautiful that it doesn’t insult your intelligence. The spare, elegant set was like the song, breathtaking in its simplicity.
After Margo Seibert (Cathy) establishes her voice can do some interesting stuff, Zak Resnick (Jamie) delivers a performance of “Shiksa Goddess” infinitely superior to the movie soundtrack. Resnick plays it more cheeky than arrogant, and the song is better for it. At this point, I’m wowed by the set, the music, the lighting and the first two numbers. I settle in, assured of a good ride. While it ultimately didn’t deliver for either me or my 20-something companion, it clearly did for the enthusiastic audience.
Artistry of this production will undoubtedly win new fans.
The Last Five Years is a sleeper hit that resonates deeply with many. This play about a failed romance between two 20-somethings has been the stuff of marriage proposals and self-assessments. The NYT even has a whole column of stories from readers. Folks of that persuasion will be richly rewarded by this production. Jason Robert Brown’s music is in great hands here. The imaginative geometries created by Roberts Wierzel’s lighting design are so fascinating that whole dissertations could be directed at explicating how their crisp precision advanced the plot in ways that hold one’s attention without being intentionally attention-getting.
However, it’s also easy to see why this play also draws mixed reviews. Unlike most other breakup musicals, The Last Five Years is relentless about the relationship — which creates 85 minutes of a tightly constricted world from which the voices of Margo Seibert and Zak Resnick try to soar.
This sense of constriction is amplified by the structure of the musical. Alternating songs, Cathy tells her side of the relationship from the present and works backward in time to falling in love, while Jamie starts at the beginning when they fell in love and moves forward in time. I found myself devoting more brain cells to placing each song in time than otherwise optimal. The reward for this was more songs about a marriage going south. Seibert’s treatment of “Summer in Ohio,” a kicky ironic number about summer stock, relieved some of this tedium, but even that reverted back to the problematic relationship.
The Last Five Years will be at the A.C.T. (Geary Theater) through June 5. This musical means much to many folks – and artistry of this production will undoubtedly win new fans.
Photo credit: Kevin Berne