The Last Five Years
Jason Robert Brown is one of the crop of talented composer-lyricists exploring new forms of musical theater for Broadway and Off-Broadway. With the help of fluid, sensitive direction by Jane Pesci-Townsend and two dazzling actors, MetroStage in Alexandria, VA, is presenting an engrossing and satisfying production of Brown’s intimate musical, The Last Five Years, in its Washington area professional premiere.
The Last Five Years might be characterized as a song cycle rather than a musical, as it tells the story of a marriage through just two performers and a series of songs with minimal staging. Actually, the term “cycle” is also relevant here in another context: Brown presents the action as occurring simultaneously backward and forward in time. The show opens at the end of the marriage for Cathy (Tracy Olivera), an aspiring actress, and the beginning of the romance for Jamie (Mark Bush), an ambitious novelist.
The two actors are both respected musical performers in Washington who live up to expectations in the course of the show, which runs less than 90 minutes without an intermission. Brown’s music and lyrics follow one very specific young man and woman as they meet, fall in love, move in together, marry, draw apart because of personal and professional stresses, and ultimately divorce. Brown shows them as caught in their individual, separate lives, only looking at each other and singing together for a brief point in the middle that represents their wedding.
Olivera captures the audience’s attention and sympathy from her first entrance, wringing the heart as she takes stock of her situation (“Still Hurting”). She is not model-thin or blandly pretty, and her aching vulnerability shines through even in her humorous moments (a highlight is “A Summer in Ohio,” Cathy’s satiric recounting of life in a summer stock acting company).
Bush, in contrast, starts out in high spirits, conveying a boyish appearance and wide-eyed joy as Jamie finds success in both love and literature while still in his early twenties. He is in constant motion in the early part of the show, changing clothes onstage in a mock striptease and dancing as he walks. He finds his own pathos in his late song “Nobody Needs to Know,” expressing his own self-disgust and anger while trying to justify his actions.
Pesci-Townsend is both a performer and a teacher, and her awareness of both sides of the stage is apparent in her skillful handling of the action. Breitbart leads a well-integrated quintet from a place of importance upstage center.