Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
The Last Five Years
The Last Five Years
The lovers in The Last Five Years are Jamie (Michael Philip O'Brien), a novelist on his way up, and Cathy (Cara Noel Antosca), a struggling actress. In 90 minutes of song, we follow Jamie and Cathy through their courtship, their marriage, and their eventual alienation and disintegration. Brown's songs are sharp and compassionate, with a cleverness that percolates through the music and lyrics; the songs have an invigorating intelligence, and as a result, so do the characters.
Both performers are endearing. Since all but one of the songs are solos, O'Brien and Antosca get a lot of opportunities to connect directly with the audience, and they each put themselves across very well, expressing the exuberance of new love and the confusion and heartbreak of a split. And they can both belt Brown's music with a lot of power, especially O'Brien. Antosca's voice is robust too, but it's a bit strident at times on high notes, and she rushes through the comedy numbers "A Summer in Ohio" and "Audition Sequence" so quickly that some of the lyrics aren't fully enunciated.
That's a minor complaint, though. The biggest problem with The Last Five Years is one that's inherent in its structure. As the show begins, Cathy sings a song about how she's "Still Hurting" over their breakup, while Jamie follows with one in which he's raving about an amazing girl he's just met. If you come to see the show without any advance knowledge, you might wonder who this sensational girl is. After about 15 minutes, if you listen to the lyrics closely, you'll figure out that Jamie's story is told in standard chronology (starting with their first date) while Cathy's is told in reverse (starting with their divorce). There's nothing in the minimal dialogue that explains this, and there's nothing in director Megan Nicole O'Brien's production that makes it clearer no visual clues, no program notes, no pre-show announcement. It's a structure that allows for some interesting contrasts one character is happy while the other is morose, thus showing the underlying tension in Cathy and Jamie's relationship but it's one that only makes sense in retrospect. And it's a structure that can make it hard for the audience to connect with the characters, no matter how appealing the actors are.
11th Hour's production has a nice visual style, with packing boxes the remnants of a relationship turned to dust littering the stage. Those boxes prove quite versatile, serving at times as a bed, a park bench and a podium. And Tabitha Allen's unseen offstage band performs Brown's arrangements with a lot of drive.
11th Hour's The Last Five Years is exuberant, touching and tuneful, and while it's not perfect, it's worth catching.
The Last Five Years runs through June 30, 2013 and is presented by 11th Hour Theatre Company at The University of the Arts' Caplan Studio Theatre, 211 South Broad Street, 16th Floor, Philadelphia. Tickets are $28 and are available online at www.11thHourTheatreCompany.org.