In his program notes for "The Last Five Years," JCC Centerstage Artistic Director Ralph Meranto refers to the musical as "one of 'those' shows," the type that people in the theater community get excited about working on, and one that becomes truly special to those who fall under its spell. It's not the first time I've heard this show described in this way. Friends with a passion for musical theater, whose opinions I respect, have sung its praises for years. I admit that with all that build up, I had high expectations. So it's with no small amount of disappointment to say that, outside of the outstanding performances from its two actors, "The Last Five Years" left me frustratingly cold.
Granted, this isn't an "easy" show. As I left the theater, I overheard at least one conversation between audience members remarking that they were thankful they'd read a plot summary beforehand or they'd have been lost completely. Written by Tony Award winner Jason Robert Brown ("Parade"), "The Last Five Years" tells the story of the doomed five-year relationship between a young couple named Jamie and Cathy. They meet in Ohio, where she's an aspiring actress and he's a novelist whose career is just about to take off. He gets published and has to travel back and forth to New York City. She stays behind in Ohio, where she continues to try to find steady work. Over the years, the couple faces the challenges of maintaining a long-distance relationship, jealousy, and the strain placed on a romantic relationship when one partner finds success while the other struggles.
It's a fairly straightforward story, but what makes the show interesting is its structure. Jamie's story is told chronologically, while Cathy's is told in reverse, beginning with the end of their marriage. The audience is left to put the pieces together as we gradually get the full picture of their relationship together.
If the show is challenging for the audience, it's infinitely more so for the two actors who play Cathy and Jamie: they're forced to carry the entire show on their own. Luckily, Janine Mercandetti and Carl Del Buono are more than up to the task. They both turn in heartfelt and moving performances that manage to wring every ounce of emotion out of Brown's songs. And the score is lovely, allowing the actors to demonstrate a wonderful range spanning a variety of musical genres.
The catchiest song — and the one I came out of the theater still humming — was "The Schmuel Song," a Klezmer-ish song sung by Jamie during the couple's first Christmas together, and Del Buono sells the hell out of it. Mercandetti gets a few showcase numbers of her own, most notably "Climbing Uphill," which takes place during one of Cathy's auditions, as she wallows in her insecurities, both in her performance as well as with Jamie. Meranto's direction of the performers allows for just enough of the characters' personalities to shine through outside of the written words.
There is a lot to like about "The Last Five Years." While watching, I kept wondering exactly what was accounting for the distance I was feeling. I'm inclined to blame the non-linear structure, which both helps and hinders the show in many respects. It's a clever bit of storytelling, and adds an extra dimension of emotional complexity to the material. But it also means that despite the fact that the actors are often on stage together, they only share the same emotional space for a few brief moments during one song, "The Next Ten Minutes," when the couple meets in the middle of their stories, as Jamie proposes and they get married. We don't get to see them truly happy at the same time at any other point. It makes for nice symmetry, but it also puts Cathy's character at a disadvantage in terms of audience empathy, since she's angry and bitter as soon as we meet her.
The minimal, abstract set was also a source of a distraction. It consists of a series of circular platforms at varied heights made to look like clock faces, with several more hanging from the back of the stage. It's clear what the scenic designer was going for, but its execution looked a little cheap considering what I know the JCC is capable of from previous productions.
There's a lot of ambition on display in "The Last Five Years," and the musical has much it wants to say about relationships and how we relate to one another. But in the end, its ideas don't coalesce in a way that's dramatically satisfying. Similarly to the characters it depicts, whom I sympathized with but didn't particularly like, it's a show that I respected more than enjoyed.