The Last Five Years is a two-person musical written by Jason Robert Brown that tells the story of the five-year relationship between Cathy, played by Nicole Dionne, and Jamie, played by James O’Connor.
The musical opens with Cathy’s side of the story being told in reverse as she is at the end of the relationship and Jamie’s side of the story being told from the start. This structure allows for heartbreakingly beautiful scenes and dramatic irony. The audience feels conflicted in loving Cathy and Jamie as a couple with the understanding that their relationship is fleeting. This plot arch also lends to striking plot twists and emphasizes the importance of perspective in interpretation.
With the structure of the story adding such a diverse element to this particular musical, I was interested to see how the director, Shannon Dunbar, would bring her own vision to the play. The simple, yet versatile, set allowed the audience to get lost in the story. The blocking choices were extremely effective and attention-grabbing—such as having Cathy enter from the audience at the beginning of the show and Jamie leave that same way at the end. Lastly, an endless number of outstanding lighting choices—one of which being the twinkling of string lights above the audience after the line, “the clock began to glow” in “The Schmuel Song”—proved that Dunbar’s adaptation of The Last Five Years was chock-full of vision and direction, making it very impactful.
The band accompanying the vocals of the show—led by Michael Henley—was absolutely astounding. The instrumentalists seemed to move and breathe as a singular being, leaving the audience in awe, not only of the incredible vocals, but also of the band’s flawless execution.
One issue that I had with the show’s mise-en-scène, however, was that the Cat’s Eye was too small of a venue. Although the setting added a level of intimacy between the cast and audience, it seemed a bit restricting for the actors. At times, the band overpowered the voices simply because of how close they were to the stage. Furthermore, it seemed to hinder Nicole and James’s confidence in their vocals in the beginning of the show because of the volume required to belt out the insanely high notes in the show’s impressive musical score—trust me when I say these voices could easily fill a theatre. The small setting also instilled an initial stiffness in the body language between characters—particularly James who is quite tall and big for the set, which took me out of the story at times.
These issues aside, I cannot express how impressed I was by this show. My problems with the setting seemed to fade away as the show progressed and the actors seemed to own their roles more. The selling feature of this show came from Nicole and James in their portrayals of Cathy and Jamie. These actors not only stood out as individuals with exemplary talents in their singing and acting abilities, but I found it hard to believe they weren’t a couple in real life with the onstage chemistry they demonstrated. This dynamic only lent further to my dismay in knowing from the beginning that the couple would not last.
At the beginning, I had pegged James as the funny one and Nicole as the one with emotional depth, but both actors proved to exceed my initial expectations. Nicole was hilarious in so many numbers, notably through the perfect balance of charisma and attitude demonstrated in “Climbing Uphill.” She also left the audience heartbroken with her blind faith and absolutely breathtaking vocals in songs like “Still Hurting” and “Goodbye Until Tomorrow.” Her emotional distress and conflicting situation felt familiar to the audience through Nicole’s exemplary portrayal; she brilliantly captured the fluidity of relationships and human experience.
James reached new levels of emotional depth when performing “If I Didn’t Believe in You,” absolutely killing the audience with the line, “I will not lose because you can’t win.” Although James’ character is one whose situation might be harder than Cathy’s for the audience to empathize with, I found it difficult to hate him, as his portrayal of Jamie was so incredibly charming and funny. With songs like “The Schmuel Song” and “Shiksa Goddess” pulling on my heartstrings, it felt like a personal betrayal when he cheats on Cathy.
The play’s devastating ending seemed to have a lasting impact on the audience, as a feeling of sadness was palpable as we cleared out of the venue. In many ways, VCDS truly outdid itself with this production of The Last Five Years.