Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

The Last Five Years
Cinnabar Theater
Review by Patrick Thomas

Zachary Hasbany and Zanna Wyant
Photo by Victoria Von Thal
In the world of relationships, the trope of "he said-she said" often comes into play. Different characters with different points of view will naturally have different takes on the same action or events. In the famed film by Akira Kurosawa, Rashomon, we are shown the same action as experienced by different characters.

A variation of this technique is put to use by Jason Robert Brown in his 2001 two-hander musical, The Last Five Years, currently playing at Petaluma's Cinnabar Theater. In the show, Cathy (Zanna Wyant) is a struggling actor who meets, and later weds, a young novelist on the rise, Jamie (Zachary Hasbany). But rather than telling the story in a linear way, from meet-cute to wedding bells, Brown has chosen to structure his story so that it runs backwards in time from Cathy's POV, and forward in time from Jamie's. The two characters rarely interact directly with each other, except for a few scenes near the middle of the show where their time arcs intersect at the moments of proposal and wedding.

What makes this structure fascinating is that we get to see the different viewpoints at very different times during the show. We see the heartbreak Cathy feels in the very first song, "Still Hurting," which Wyant delivers with an achingly tender, vulnerable tone. Then, moments later, Jamie lets us know how excited he is to have met a woman so different from all the Jewish women his mother has fixed him up with, singing "Shiksa Goddess." By the time we get to the end of The Last Five Years, the tables have turned, and we see the excitement of a new relationship from Cathy's point of view, and the heartbreak of divorce from Jamie's.

The songs are lovely–emotional and tender for the most part, but occasionally wryly funny. For about 80% of the time, Wyant and Hasbany do a good job of rendering Brown's music. When Wyant channels the angsty, emotional aspects of her voice, she's terrific, and we get a sense of the pain Jamie is putting her through. However, when she is called upon to belt in her upper register, Wyant's voice becomes thin and feels unsupported by sufficient breath. She is, however, a skilled actress, so even when she is having difficulties with pitch she is still a powerful presence on stage.

Hasbany has a similar problem with pitch: once he gets into his upper register, he tends to go a little flat and struggles to find his way to the right note. This is sad, because he has a lovely, resonant tone. Compared to Wyant, his acting can veer into overacting, which undercuts the sense of Jamie as a talented literary novelist. He also tends to rely too heavily on an expression that is so wide-eyed that it looks like he's just seen a car that is careening out of control and bearing down on him. When he's not goggle-eyed like this, his backup expression seems to be squinting as though trying to read the fine print on a contract.

Despite these uneven performances, Wyant and Hasbany do a stellar job of communicating that, despite the excitement each feels at the start of the relationship, these two people are wrong for each other. Their body language, their expressions, and their silences all tell the story of a couple doomed for a messy breakup.

The best work done in this production of The Last Five Years is by director Jared Sakren and set designer Wayne Hovey. Hovey's set is simple and elegant, with a pair of portals, one stage left, the other upstage right behind a scrim, which helps to reinforce the distance–emotional and physical–between the two characters. There are also wagons positioned in both wings that allow other set pieces to be rolled on and off–with surprisingly little noise, an achievement given the intimate confines of the Cinnabar Theater and the fact that stagehands are kept busy placing and replacing furnishings and props on those wagons with some regularity.

Sakren makes excellent use of his staging options, keeping the action flowing smoothly, and clearly establishing where both Cathy and Jamie are on their journey with each other. Given the non-traditional nature of the timeline in The Last Five Years, it would be easy to confuse an audience, but Sakren always keeps us in the loop.

The five-piece band, led by pianist Brett Strader, does lovely, lilting work with Brown's score–though, given the occasional weak vocals, his piano sometimes masked the singing.

The Last Five Years is a delightful, at times haunting work of musical theatre. Despite the vocal issues, the direction and the lovely score make this two-hander worth a visit to Petaluma.

The Last Five Years runs through January 21, 2024, at the Cinnabar Theater, 3333 Petaluma Blvd North, Petaluma CA. Shows are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $25-$50. For tickets and information, please visit or call 707-763-8920.