“The Last Five Years,” a contemporary musical about a disintegrating marriage, tells its simple story in 14 songs, via an interesting and unusual structure.
Now at the Station Theatre in Urbana, where it opened Thursday night, the musical by composer/playwright Jason Robert Brown opens with Cathy singing “Still Hurting,” about the breakup of her marriage to Jamie, an aspiring novelist. She proceeds to sing of the love affair from its end to its beginning, while Jamie, a novelist, sings of it chronologically, or from beginning to end. They meet in the middle, at their wedding.
The musical, with its simple set — a small black table, twochairs and large photographs on the wall showing the couple in happy days – offers an intimate, some say voyeuristic, portrayal of a doomed love between a confident young Jewish novelist and an aspiring Gentile actress (one song Jamie sings is titled “Shiksa Goddess”) whose career doesn’t take off as his does.
The one-act musical premiered in 2001 at the Northlight Theatre in Skokie then went off-Broadway the following year. Time magazine named it one of the best 10 shows of 2001, while The New York Times called it a“modest musical with a huge following.” A film adaptation was released in 2014.
Fans who spoke to the Times about “The Last Five Years” have used some of its song lyrics in marriage proposals and wedding toasts (let’s hope those unions had better luck). Another playwright admired the structure of the piece, saying it ingeniously tells of one person in a relationship going in one direction and the other going the opposite way. Indeed.
Director Chelsea Collier, in a first production at the Station, double-cast the musical, with David French and Jenna Kohn on odd dates, and Bryan Goode and Mariana Seda on even-numbered dates. The double-casting was wise; the songs, as do many contemporary show tunes, are somewhat difficult, with no hooks, and require stamina of the singers. In this production, they are backed by a four-piece combo: Jon Faw, guitar/bass; Barbara Hedlund, cello; Collin Jung, violin; and Ty Tuttle, piano.
French and Kohn sang the roles on opening night, when I saw the musical. In his Station debut, French displays great presence; he comes off as feeling quite comfortable on stage and has the confidence to pull off the character, described by some as arrogant. He also articulates well the song lyrics.
Kohn, a junior in the acting program at the University ofIllinois, also is a likable performer, aptly getting across the insecurities of her character. She perhaps had the more difficult task of opening the play with a sad ballad about the breakup of hers and Jamie’s relationship. She later shone in the upbeat “A Summer in Ohio,” earning hearty applause from the audience.
However, I had a hard time discerning some of the lyrics of the songs she sang. Perhaps it was the microphone or the pitch at which she was required to sing. I had no trouble, though, understanding French.
The two meet again on stage at the end of the 90-minute musical (there is no intermission) to sing “Goodbye Until Tomorrow/I Could Never Rescue You.” Cathy is happy and glowing; Jamie is sad and disappointed. It makes for an effective and moving ending.