At the end of The Last 5 Years, which the Maplewood Playhouse is currently staging, the play’s central couple breaks up. The breakup is no spoiler; because they also do it at the play’s beginning!
The feat is made possible by the show’s unique structure. The play first introduces us to a female partner Cathy (Neena Caperna), after the demise of her and Jamie’s marriage. In the next song, male lead Jamie (Pierre Tannous) expresses his awe at Cathy’s Shiksa Goddess good looks on their first date. Then, for the rest of the show, Cathy’s story continues in reverse while Jamie’s continues linearly.
This innovative musical came about as an early project of prominent composer Jason Robert Brown. Supposedly, it was also a highly autobiographical one; the parallels were, in fact, so significant that Brown’s real-life ex-wife sued her former husband to compel him to change some of the most personal material.
The deep love that writer Jamie and actress Cathy share for one another is evident throughout this counterpoint journey. Yet the plot follows (or retraces) how their initially passionate romance gradually sours as the couple faces career failures, external temptation, outsize egos, and plain old emotional incompatibility.
This storytelling approach infuses the whole play with an aura of tragedy, and it’s also a thematically resonant one. The show highlights the growing disconnection between the partners because they spend the whole play in different places, both literally and figuratively. On the con-side, the back-and-forth structure can be a little disorienting for audience members unfamiliar with the soundtrack or the show’s concept beforehand.
The fact that The Last 5 Years is entirely sung-through also somewhat limits the protagonists’ character development, as does the fact that we never get to see this couple function as a couple. Besides a few cute moments where the other actor serves more as a prop than scene partner, the only time the two characters interact in front of us is when they meet in the middle of the show’s timeline: at their ill-advised wedding.
The Last Five Years enjoyed a short off-Broadway run in 2002 and has had a few significant revivals. It’s also become a bit of a cult hit among theatre geeks, a frequent source of audition songs, and a popular choice for regional theaters due to its minimal set and cast requirements.
However, The Last 5 Years are deceptively tricky to stage effectively and probably even more challenging to perform! As lovely as the show’s songs are and as vocally talented were the performers who belted them out, there’s still only so long that characters can do little more than sing solos before one’s attention starts to wane.
Though I still found myself zoning out occasionally, director Kim Enright did her best to correct this potential pothole by evoking dynamic and highly physical performances from her actors, who may have had an even more challenging job. The time gaps between the show’s songs mean that Jamie has to convey radically different emotions within the span of a few minutes, while Caperna had the even more significant challenge of going through an entire character arc backward.
Luckily, the two were pretty much up to the task. Both actors vocals’ were more-or-less solid throughout the demanding material, and their acting chops were on full display. Standout moments included the complex mixture of guilt and despair portrayed by Tannous in the striking ballad Nobody Needs To Know and Caperna’s frenzied delivery of rapid-fire comedic number Climbing Uphill.
Finally, one memorable moment where the show’s unusual structure paid off big-time is its ending, which juxtaposes Cathy’s radiant and optimistic Goodbye Until Tomorrow with Jamie’s sorrowful I Could Never Rescue You. The sting of love lost makes all the bitterer when combined with depicting how extraordinary that love once was.
If you do happen to find yourself on the way to catch this inspired production, which unfortunately plays for only three more performances, prepare for a pretty painful ride. Though there is plenty of humor in the show, and it is possible to see hope in the fleeting bond between these two characters, I found a lot more heartbreak.