What does it mean when you’ve seen four productions of The Last Five Years, a musical about the utter breakdown of a relationship, and teared up each time at the emotion of the story but felt nothing the fifth time out? Well, not quite nothing, more like annoyed and disappointed.
Was the production off somehow or does the show simply not resonate the way it once did? In this case, the answer is yes to both.
Written and composed by Jason Robert Brown, The Last Five Years tells the story of two twenty-something New Yorkers who meet, fall in love, marry and split up over the course of five years. Eschewing straight-ahead storytelling, the show’s shtick is that each character tells their side of the story separately, one forward and one backward. We meet Cathy, an aspiring but unsuccessful actress, at the end of the relationship and follow her back toward an increasingly happier time when Jamie and she were just falling in love. Jamie, a burgeoning hotshot novel writer, on the other hand, begins his narrative at the blissful start of the relationship only to careen toward the disaster we know is coming. The only time the pair actually share the same narrative moment in time is at their wedding, mid-way into the show.
Written in 2001, The Last Five Years is without question
Just look at the number where Jamie, newly married, bemoans that he can’t sleep with all the girls he claims are now throwing themselves at him. Note that what he considers “throwing themselves at him” is mostly clothed breasts that come into his view as women walk by. Poor guy can’t help but be tempted, right? He’s just a man helpless to hormones after all.
Even several years ago, the last time I saw this show; this scene was a bit cringy. But layer on rape culture, #MeToo and Times Up onto it, and the laughs that Brown intended from that number fall like misogynist bricks to the ground.
Or you could consider Jamie’s last song. The one where he finally leaves Cathy. “I couldn’t rescue you” he cries. Pause on that for a minute. Jamie is successful, Cathy’s career is floundering and he’s pissed that he couldn’t “fix” her. He’s not sad that he couldn’t be a better supporter or better listener or better partner. He’s simply angry that she needed help and he couldn’t be her Prince on a white horse. Her hero.
Brown tries to give Cathy flaws as well. Mostly the fact that she wallows in her setbacks, failing to be supportive and happy for Jamie’s accomplishments. But through the lens of 2018 – Jamie’s infractions far outweigh Cathy’s failings.
The result is a love story we care little about. We wonder what the hell Cathy is doing with this narcissistic cheater and aren’t the least bit upset when it finally falls apart.
But we’ve all seen dated plays done well, thanks to elevated direction. However, not only doesn’t director Kelsey McMillian find a way to rise above the tone-deaf elements of the musical, she clutters it with unnecessary padding and allows one of her leads to deliver a fairly emotionless performance.
What do you mean there’s an ensemble in the cast, was the first impression upon reading the program. I’ve seen the show done a number of ways, but never with two extra people on stage. People who have no lines or purpose but to move set pieces, occasionally interact physically with the action or stand in for the leads in shadowy background poses. It’s as though McMillian doesn’t trust her audience to imagine that when Cathy tries out for a show, there’s a casting director watching her. Or that when Jamie cheats there’s an actual woman in his bed. It’s all so terribly derivative.
Additionally, McMillian chooses to have both characters on set together many times despite the separate story narrative. So for example, when it’s Cathy’s turn for a number, Jamie might be there onstage with her…mute…nodding away as a visual prop or vice versa. I’ve seen the show done with pure separation (save for the one wedding scene and a snippet at the end) and I’ve seen it done the way McMillian has chosen, with much overlap between the two actors. But I haven’t seen a director rely so heavily on the presence of both actors together to make the show work. It feels muddled and confusing at times, is this a duet or a mute stand in? Mostly one wonders why McMillan doesn’t trust that we are abstractly intellectual enough to understand the idea of an invisible ‘other’ in a scene?
Performance is also half a concern in this production. While Haley Hussey as Cathy has not only a profoundly sonorous voice with the power to light up half of Houston, she also has the emotive acting chops to bring her character to life. She is the solitary reason to see this show. Number after number (accompanied by a terrific four piece live band, heavy on the piano and violin strains) Hussey blows the roof off with her angsty ballads and emotionally raw sweetness.
However, Kiefer Slaton as Jamie doesn’t have the same impact. No question his voice is superb. Slanton is taxed with a mountainous vocal range and he scales it expertly. But when it comes to showing emotion, Slanton just can’t deliver. His gaze goes constantly to the floor or the roof, never connecting with the audience. His moves are either stiff or overly choreographed. We never believe his love or his pain. We admire the voice but constantly wonder what’s behind it.
Perhaps if McMillan had spent less time fussing with her ensemble extras and worked more with Slanton, she could have coaxed a superior performance.
Perhaps if Brown were given a chance to rewrite the musical in light of this new era, the show would still bring tears.
Perhaps we just have to admit that this one was doomed from the start.
The Last Five Years runs through July 14 at Obsidian Theater in special presentation with Music Theatre International at 3522 White Oak. For information, visit obsidiantheater.org or call 832-889-7837. $30-40.