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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Last Five Years
Artistry
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of Ishmael


Aly Westberg O'Keeffe and Ryan London Levin
Photo by Devon Cox
The Last Five Years is a beautiful work of musical theater, the story of an ill-fated marriage between two people in their twenties with good intentions who could not land their lives on the same space. Robert Jason Brown wrote this two-character musical, which he openly cites as being autobiographical, after his own first marriage ended in divorce. The show comprises fourteen musical numbers—each a complete scene unto itself. There are no "book" scenes; Brown's songs tell the story with narrative conveyed through the lyrics and emotions embedded in the soaring melodies. Wit, joy, yearning, self-doubt, sorrow, anger and tenderness all surge up, casting a particular light on the turns in their relationship before giving way to another feeling, another step.

In addition, The Last Five Years is uniquely structured to tell the two partners' stories in tandem, but in different order. The first song ("Still Hurting") belongs to Cathy Hiatt, sung at the end of their marriage. Each of her seven subsequent songs moves back a notch in time, five years back, so that her last song/scene takes place as Cathy is giddy with hope after her first date with Jamie Wellerstein ("Goodbye Until Tomorrow"). The second song in the show is Jamie's, just after he has met Cathy and is elated by the prospect of being with a girl he did not meet at the Jewish Community Center ("Shiksa Goddess"). His seven subsequent songs cross the same five years, but moving forward in time, so that he concludes as he leaves Cathy with the poignant "I Could Never Rescue You".

With one crucial exception, Jamie or Cathy appear alone in their scenes—though, in several cases, the other is understood to be an unseen presence. The exception occurs as they cross at the midpoint of their relationship, the exact moment that Jamie proposes to Cathy. It is romantically wrought, set in a rowboat on the lake in New York City's Central Park. Their song, "The Next Ten Minutes," is stunning in its expression of hope for happiness. They move cautiously from a pledge of the next ten minutes, to another ten, until they leap with all their hearts into the fullness of their lives. Because we already know, from the very first, how this will end, "The Next Ten Minutes" is heartbreaking. Yet it is also life-affirming, for the hopefulness it conveys has the power to keep us afloat through the roughest seas. The emotional pull of Brown's compositions is unassailable.

Brown is fair-handed in presenting both sides of the relationship; if anything, he is harder on the male partner, transformed from Jason Robert Brown, theater composer, to Jamie Wellerstein, novelist. Both Brown and Wellerstein achieve heady, early success—Brown winning a Tony Award for the score for his first show on Broadway, Parade, while his alter-ego Jamie had a best-selling novel, both in their 20s. Jamie comes across as somewhat arrogant, independent and self-absorbed. Cathy, an aspiring actress, appears insecure, determined to achieve goals apart from Jamie but feeling diminished by the shadow his early success casts on her.

Ryan London Levin as Jamie and Aly Westberg O'Keefe as Cathy both deliver terrific performances. Levin's Jamie is likeable, highly energized, and just a bit cocky. He seems to genuinely want Cathy to be happy, but doesn't see that he is setting the terms of their life. His song delivery gets stronger as the show progresses, with the comical "Schmuel Song," done in an old-world Yiddish accent, and his penultimate number, the heartwrenching "Nobody Needs to Know," especially standing out.

O'Keefe's Cathy is sincere, funny, and somewhat self-deprecating while searching for the ingredients that will build her self-esteem. The backward journey she conveys, from pain and loss of the break-up to the thrill of love at the first bloom of her relationship with Jamie, is all the more touching as she reveals the greater hope and happiness that preceded each stage. O'Keefe also has a powerful voice, doing full justice to Brown's wonderful score.

Elena Giannetti directs the piece with a steady and sensitive hand, drawing both the narrative and the emotional content from each musical piece. Her staging transitions smoothly and swiftly between Cathy and Jamie, giving equal weight to her and his views and feelings. All tech and design work on this production are handled well. Benjamin Olsen's simple set uses a ramp that connects upper and lower performance areas, and serves at times as a divide between the dual time frames.

Artistry's longtime ace music director Anita Ruth complements the piece with a lovely performance of the songs on piano, accompanied by Joan Griffith on guitar, bass and mandolin. Full disclosure: I admit to being spoiled by the fantastic performance by the band on the show's original cast album, which I have listened to since it was issued during The Last Five Years's initial run off-Broadway in 2002. Jason Robert Brown himself conducted and played piano for the recording, supported by five musicians. Ms. Ruth's and Ms. Griffiths beautiful work in the Artistry production notwithstanding, for a taste of how truly special this music can be, I commend that original cast album to you.

Performed in just ninety minutes and with only two actors, The Last Five Years is the quintessential small musical. Where other shows capture us with big numbers, super stage effects, and miscellaneous razzle dazzle, this one draws us in by way of its intimacy, making the audience a confidante to these two young adults. What Brown illustrates through his plotting and music are painful experiences by which we learn to be our authentic self in a relationship—not to disappear in the orbit of the other, nor to dominate the other, but to become our best self.

We realize is that Cathy and Jamie's story is, after all, not tragic. They are wounded, but they seem to have enough grit and hope to be able to move on. At the show's end Jamie and Cathy are just 28, with most of their lives still to come. There is no assurance, but we can imagine that their past five years have left them with insights and courage to forge ahead.

Artistry's The Last Five Years is highly recommended. They have mounted a very strong production of a unique, small, but significant work of musical theater, noteworthy for its gorgeous music, its emotional arc, and its two powerful performances.

The Last Five Years, through February 11, 2018, in Artistry's Black Box Theater at Bloomington Center for the Arts, 1800 West Old Shakopee Road, Bloomington, MN. Tickets: $41.00; Seniors: $36.00; Next Generation (30 and under): $12.00. For tickets call 952-563-8575 or go to artistrymn.org.

Written and Composed by: Jason Robert Brown; Director: Elena Giannetti; Music Director: Anita Ruth; Scenic Design: Benjamin Olsen; Costume Design: Annie Cady; Lighting Design: Erin Belpedio; Sound Design: Matt Bombich; Properties Design: Katie Phillips; Stage Manager: Sarah E. Perron; Producing Artistic Director: Benjamin McGovern

Cast: Ryan London Levin (Jamie Wellerstein), Aly Westberg O'Keefe (Catherine Hiatt)


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