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Monday, June 17, 2024

Theatre review: The Last Five Years from three perspectives

In an experiment in theatre criticism, we present three reviews of this Neptune Theatre production

Rather than a single voice, in an experiment of theatre criticism, we present a trio of reviews of Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years, currently on stage at Neptune Theatre.

Editor’s Note: To ensure the integrity of the three reviews, they have only been minimally edited.

From contributing editor Mark Robins:

There is a gimmick to Brown’s The Last Five Years. It can be both a blessing and a curse. Fortunately, in this production, it is more the former.

JRB’s two-hander follows the story of an ultimately failed marriage told through two chronologies. Cathy, an aspiring actor, tells her version of what went wrong from the end of the relationship to the beginning. Her partner Jamie, an up-and-coming writer, recalls his side from start to finish.

Although clever, if you are not already aware of the conceit, it can be somewhat confusing. While there may be some joy in the discovery of Brown’s device, there remains a risk of leaving an audience behind.

Because the two characters are at different points in their relationship, they only really come together in the middle of this 90-minute intermissionless musical. Director Marcia Kash does help things somewhat by allowing the two characters to appear together sporadically. However, the cross-over between the two is inconsistent, again, potentially adding to the confusion.

With little interaction between them, the imperative here is in the ability of its two actors to form both a believable connection and emotional resonance to make it work. Fortunately, director Marica Kash found this necessity in Heather McGuigan and Aidan deSalaiz.

McGuigan, who arguably has the more difficult timeline of the two, rises to the challenge both emotionally and musically. Effortlessly singing Brown’s often tricky songs, she easily captures the bittersweet arc of her story. From the opening curtain low of Still Hurting through the hilarious audition sequence and accompanying Climbing Uphill, McGuigan is a joy to watch.

For a musical primarily regarded as an autobiographical recounting of Brown’s failed real-life marriage, it is somewhat surprising that in this production it is Jamie who becomes this marriage’s villain. Where other productions have been more ambiguous in terms of who is responsible for the marriage ultimately falling apart, there is no question here. deSalaiz fully embraces this interpretation. His late If I Didn’t Believe in You is an emotional highlight.

It will come as no surprise though that it is when McGuigan and deSalaiz come together at the halfway mark in The Next Ten Minutes, where the connection between them is at its best. In this beautifully realized moment, deSalaiz enters alone on a rowboat that will, by song’s end, leave with McGuigan aboard alone as the two continue on their separate timelines.

Initially performed in 2001, this version is smartly updated to bring it into a new decade. A Skype call replaces dinner between Cathy and her father and smartphones not only make more sense than reaching for a telephone receiver but also provide a subtle inference to today’s social currency.

Ostensibly a chamber musical with just two voices and a superb two-piece ensemble with musical director Lisa St. Clair on piano and Colin Matthews on cello, the pre-show conversation turned to the suitability of the larger Fountain Hall for such an intimate show. Under Kash’s direction and with its two performances, the larger space never became an issue.

Brian Dudkiewicz’s set design is gorgeous, with its curved blocks rising high above the stage, exploding as they ascend into the stage’s fly space. While somewhat underutilized, it is the perfect metaphor for the disintegrating marriage. It also becomes the canvas for Aaron Collier’s sometimes clever projections and Jessica Lewis’s lighting design.

Bittersweet, The Last Five Years reminds us that relationships, like this musical itself, are complicated and the reasons behind failed ones even more so. With fifty percent of all marriages resulting in divorce, perhaps five years isn’t such a bad run after all.

Heather McGuigan as Cathy in the Neptune Theatre production of The Last Five Years. Photo by Stoo Metz.
Heather McGuigan as Cathy in the Neptune Theatre production of The Last Five Years. Photo by Stoo Metz.

From contributor Ryan William:

Benefitting from a pair of great performances, some fantastic design elements and crystal clear sound design, Neptune Theatre’s production of The Last Five Years mostly overcomes a wonky script and a few confusing directorial choices.

For those unfamiliar with Brown’s script, it studies marriage dynamics between Cathy and Jamie. She’s a struggling actor and he an up and coming author. It is a dynamic examined throughout the piece. What makes The Last Five Years unique is that it is mostly presented in individual songs.

Cathy starts at the end of the relationship and Jamie at the beginning. The two only meet in the middle, at their wedding, to sing on stage together. Unfortunately, both Jamie and Cathy often come off as whiny and entitled and may have you wondering why they stay together in the first place other than an obligation to a love they think is there, but isn’t really. Jamie seems in love with the idea of being in love, and Cathy just wants to be loved. A deadly combination for any relationship.

As written, the show can be a little confusing, and unfortunately, while director Marcia Kash makes some unique choices, it’s unclear if they add or distract from the confusion. Having Jamie present for only some of Cathy’s numbers and vice versa may have an audience wondering which timeline is the non-singing character in? It’s refreshing to see a different take on the show that is usually filled with solo singing. Still, with multiple costumes and set changes for both characters, it’s impossible to have continuity with Kash’s vision and, therefore, may leave some audience members in the dark.

However, it’s a minor quibble in a relatively well-realized production.

As Cathy, Heather McGuigan has arguably the tougher challenge starting in despair at the break up of her marriage and working towards the excitement and thrill of a first date. McGuigan gives a wonderfully coloured performance, whether crying in sweat pants as she reads a letter from Jamie asking to end their marriage or snacking on a road trip to her hometown. Her vocal gymnastics throughout Brown’s intricate and tricky score were a highlight while her playful smile and eyes make it easy to cheer for the underdog. She moves through the piece as if she was born to play the role.

As Jamie, Aidan deSalaiz is a dead ringer for a young Jason Robert Brown. At times charming, cunning and shrewd, the performance felt somewhat disjointed on opening night. Perhaps it’s just that Jamie is such a dick, but deSalaiz had a hard time overcoming the writing and the character to give us a look into what made Jamie unhappy with his fortune in life. His Close Your Eyes is a stand out as he starts to realize how a ring on his left hand can be a magnet for women. It is an excellent performance, but ultimately, like Jamie, you are left wanting more.

One couldn’t ask for a better set design by Brian Dudkiewicz. Made up of a spiral of boxes that light up and reach up to the top of the Neptune stage, it allows this intimate play to feel big and small at the same time. While the set looks incredible, especially when brought further to life by Jessica Lewis’ lighting and Aaron Collier’s projection design, it would have been better realized had it been used more in the staging. As is, it is relatively left untouched throughout the piece as other smaller set pieces are moved on and off stage.

Musical director Lisa St. Clair keeps things tight and crisp as she weaves through one of the trickiest scores in recent musical theatre history and sound designer Joe Micallef makes every word and note clear throughout the show’s 90-minute run time.

Like most relationships, Neptune Theatre’s production of The Last Five Years will have you falling in love, sometimes scratching your head but ultimately happy for the experience.

Aidan deSalaiz as Jamie in the Neptune Theatre production of The Last Five Years. Photo by Stoo Metz.
Aidan deSalaiz as Jamie in the Neptune Theatre production of The Last Five Years. Photo by Stoo Metz.

From contributor Chelsey Robichaud:

The intimate and unconventional storytelling of The Last Five Years spans the course of a five-year relationship between two artists in their early twenties. The curtain rises with Cathy, a hopeful singer, dealing with the divorce. Scene change to Jamie, author in the making, beaming from their first date. There is a back and forth match of emotions throughout the 90-minute show as the characters battle their career dreams against their marriage.

The songs are a playlist shuffle of humorous, memorable songs dealing with past experiences to the classic “I want” songs of the show tune variety. From one song to the next, it is a simple chain of snapshots where we question more of their relationship. Cathy sings of longing to stay together with a glued smile, and we rewind to Jamie moving forward in his career.

Aidan deSalaiz, who plays Jamie, is the spitting image of the show’s creator, Jason Robert Brown. His youthful enthusiasm in the show’s opening plays to the likes of a young and in love Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah’s couch, a seemingly confident character who jumps at every opportunity without questioning his motives. You cannot help but chuckle at Jamie’s telling of The Schmuel Song and dive into a unique story with time being a key theme of the show. Jamie does not question his motives in Moving Too Fast and makes rational decisions. Rather than being empathetic, he remains static with Cathy. We do not see him triumph when trying to save his marriage.

McGuigan delivers an emotional performance in the opening scenes. Starting the story backwards certainly presents a challenge. Cathy’s optimism and hope lead to her thinking she is living a quality marriage, yet comes to the realization she plays a part in her husband’s successes rather than thriving amongst her own. Skipping through the pages of Jamie’s novel and their marriage, she seeks validation.

The Last Five Years is a puzzle, in which the audience wants to connect with the characters and seeks to know who actually terminates the marriage. It leaves audiences guessing and leading the way to individual interpretation. The confusion is present through the inconsistencies within the soliloquies. In one scene, Cathy is sitting shotgun and talking to an empty chair; we presume Jamie is driving. When Jamie tells the story of Schmuel, Cathy is present in the scene and reacting throughout.

The set is a spiral showcasing household objects and untold Easter Eggs of the characters portrayed. The Playbills, a menorah, photos and snacks help the audience to imagine the character’s interests and favourable past times that are not mentioned explicitly in the script.

Like all relationships, The Last Five Years is a relatable and sentimental modern-day musical. Having been enjoyed on stage and screen, it is worth a visit to the theatre.

The Last Five Years with book, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. Directed by Marcia Kash. A Neptune Theatre production. On stage at Neptune Theatre’s Fountain Hall (1593 Argyle St, Halifax) until February 9. Visit for tickets and information.

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