The Last Five Years
Jason Robert Brown (music & lyrics)
|Zak Resnick (Jamie) & Margo Seibert (Cathy)|
Fourteen months ago, social media in the San Francisco Bay Area lit up like a Times Square explosion with messages like “Drop everything ... You must not miss this” and “Hurry up ... It’s only here a few days!” The reference was to a brief visit at the American Conservatory Theatre by the touring, concert version of Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years, a two-person musical about love found, love solidified in marriage, and then love lost as two careers and lives go in opposite directions. Luckily, A.C.T. took the cue from last year’s overwhelming but all too-short success and is now presenting its own, fully staged version that meets and even exceeds the excellence of the March 2015 sojourning version of The Last Five Years.
What makes the telling of this love-found, love-lost journey so unique is that each half of this couple tells the story from opposite timeline beginnings. Cathy starts at the sad end of their five years when the break-up is imminent; Jamie, at the exuberant beginning as he prepares for their first date. The stories proceed with their separate ups and downs told in alternating songs by each half of the couple.
The emotions and moods of the two ends of the relationship unfold before us. Taking off her wedding ring with sad, teary eyes, Cathy’s opening song is “Still Hurting,” sung with pensive mournfulness. “Jamie is over and Jamie is gone ... Jamie’s decided it’s time to move on ... And I am still hurting.” On the other hand, Jamie appears on the opposite side of the stage with emotions one hundred eighty degrees different. Literally bouncing in all directions as if on a pogo stick, he explodes in happy song about his new girlfriend, the “Shiska Goddess,” and declares, “I’m your Hebrew slave at your service ... I think I could be in love with someone like you.”
Like a tennis match, we watch scenes fade in and out from one side of the stage to the other as each half of the end and beginning of this love cycle moves toward the middle when they actually marry in a beautifully staged duet, “The Next Ten Minutes.” As Jamie proposes with “Will you share your life with me for the next ten minutes," we see the irony knowing their shared life is doomed to be succinct. When the two stand taking their vows under a stage spot shining as if from heaven with rose petals descending, we of course cringe a bit as they each pledge in sweet notes, “There are so many dreams/years I need to see/be with you.”
We soon come to understand that a major, starring role of The Last Five Years is Jason Robert Brown’s incredible lyrics and music. All the emotions of dating, moving in together, deciding to marry, dealing with career issues and triumphs, doubts about self and partner, and suffering through increasing conflicts and ultimate disillusion are captured in songs that are appropriately snappy, funny, grand, aching, and haunting. The exuberance and the torments of Cathy and Jamie are deeply felt by us all as we get to know a lot about these two people and how they are so very different. We easily begin to see parallels to our own histories of convoluted mixtures of love and ambition, of ego and loyalty, of blind trust and obvious betrayal.
Cathy Hiatt is a struggling actress whose career in New York is going nowhere fast, as witnessed in a hilarious sequence of failed auditions in “Climbing Uphill.” As Cathy, Margo Seibert sings, “When you come home to me, I’ll wear a sweeter smile,” in a number of different styles (and even tries dancing a bit to liven things up). Her repeated, audition song eventually morphs into the thoughts racing through her head (“Why is the director staring at this crotch?”) as she tries to impress the “table of men ... always men, usually gay.” All the time, we see the double meaning of her audition song as now-wife Cathy is struggling to figure out how to attract wandering-husband Jamie to be and stay at home more often in the evenings.
Ms. Seibert brings a voice that can snap voraciously with excitement, melt into soft melancholy, or climb with angelic softness to clear heights before belting a big ending. She has the tough assignment of introducing her persona to the audience when in the depths of am emotional valley while we meet her counterpart who is bouncing about on the other side of the stage in major puppy love. But she wins us over with a genuine, believable story and with a voice that sings in sustained, soft thoughts of remembering the ups and downs of her relationship with Jamie.
Equally wonderful, if not even more outstanding in his presentation and character portrayal of New York novelist Jamie Wellerstein is Zak Resnick. His dynamic, energetic voice soars in clear, high-volume peaks as he rocks out the phone to a friend in “Moving Too Fast,” excited but worrying about the speed of his newfound girlfriend. On the other end of the relationship, we experience a voice full of nuance and wide emotional range as he tenderly sings in heartbreak regret and gnawing guilt, “Nobody Needs to Know” while in bed with another woman. “I made a promise, I took a vow, I wrote a story, Cathy, we changed the ending, just look at me now.”
Zak Resnick also gets to show his ability to amuse. Dancing around a Christmas tree topped by a Star of David, the young, dimpled author sparkles as he sings to an unseen Cathy, “The Schmuel Song,” his own created tale about a Jewish tailor in Kilmovich and his magical clock. Bursting with a personality and physique that attracts adoring women in bars and book signings, Jamie begins to wander where he should not (“A Miracle Would Happen”) just as we see Cathy now at the part of her story where she ready for a life of “I want you and nothing but you” (“I Can Do Better than That”).
A Christmas tree rises suddenly from depths under the stage; a rowboat glides across an imaginary lake; a bench appears to represent a park; and pieces of bedrooms, living rooms, and cafes fly in and out with ease – All part of Tim Mackabee’s clever staging. Robert Wierzel helps keep us in tune with the two opposing stories with contrasting blue-peach lighting schemes and a sunshine-bright middle section when wedding’s short bliss occurs. His use of meticulously and inventively placed spotlights also help zero in on important details and moments of the story. Callie Floor has costumed the two actors in an ever-changing array of dressy to hang-out-at-home wear. Michael Berresse directs the actors in such a way to have scenes flow seamlessly in over-lapping manner, one to another, and – through the use of moving, massive screens – to show the other half of the couple often in the background of a scene or in a recalled memory. Finally, Matt Castle directs both the voices and the musicians with artistic mastery in assuring that Mr. Brown’s music shines in all its glory.
By the end/beginning of this musical, we as audience once again understand that no relationship break-up is all black and white and that regret is usually shared in the finale as much as love is in the beginning. These stories are both tragic and familiar. That is probably why The Last Five Years continues to draw audiences to many theatres across the nation and should be seen in this fantastically directed, produced, and acted latest version at American Conservatory Theatre.
Rating: 5 E
The Last Five Years continues through June 5, 2016 on the Geary Stage of American Conservatory Theatre, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at http://www.act-sf.org/ or by calling the box office 415-749-2228.
Photos by Kevin Beane