June 26, 2010 performance reviewed by Frances Benn Hall.
Almost a hundred years ago, Ezra Pound (whose personal and political life took on disastrous turns later) had profound influence on the creative arts by blasting the message: MAKE IT NEW. Which is exactly what writer/composer Jason Robert Brown has done in ingeniously shaping his haunting musical, The Last Five Years, now playing gloriously at the Berkshire Theatre Festival where Ezra’s “make it new” vibes pulse in every aspect of the musical and its production.
The musical is mesmerizing and dynamic, sad and hilarious, accessible yet fractured in the telling of its love story, with sad ending of two young people Jamie, (Paul Anthony Stewart) a budding but untried author and Cathy (Julie Reiber) an aspiring actress.
On a plot level, they fall in love, marry, and after five years, part . On a performance level is it far more. Under the sensitive and impeccable direction of Andres Cato, the story unfolds, as composed, with songs alternating, those of Cathy sadly beginning at the end and working backward, while those of Jamie begin and move forward.
To further interweave the pattern, although the songs are alternating solos, moving gradually toward each other, from the beginning not only are both actors on stage, but the stage itself is a room from which there is no exit. From the start of the play the five piece orchestra, with grand piano up R and four piece band UL are on stage as are the two actors. Each can move about the space, live his/her own joy or grief in song but never distracting from or responding to the words of the other singing.
This pattern of backward/forward movement of plot material leads in the middle of the play to the one moment in the play when the two time frames briefly coincide and the two meet center stage, to exchange rings, to marry, to hope.
But the relentless press of time itself lets Jamie gradually realize that his success (he gets his book published successfully) does not help the marriage, and that he is unable to keep the faltered marriage alive.
And Cathy,having realized little dramatic fame, and having found it impossible to cope with yearnings for a baby and being a successful artist, can find little hope in a dreary summer part in an impossibly awful summer stock company in Ohio. She is on a downward slope from hopes she had when she fell in love, yet even still she fights to encourage herself, to go on. Knowing it is too late.
Both still love each other. But it can no longer work.
So, when they both reach the five year end time period, Jamie admit must admit that as much as he has loved her, and while he loves her still, “I could never rescue you,” she knows it too. It was in her first sad song. So they part, both grieved by the failure. And the audience is moved to tears.
Jamie, based admittedly on his creator, has the most dynamic and physically active songs. His opening number engages the audience immediately with its vitality as he, young Orthodox Jewish boy steeped in tradition, begins his elation at finding out that he is madly in love with a goyishe whom he soon idolizes as “Shiska Goddess”, and who will inspire him in his longing to become a famous author. His young boyish character develops gradually through the play and he finally reaches the heart-wrenching decision:
“I could never rescue you.”
Cathy knows too. She has quietly let us know the same thing in her first song…and in her second “Still hurting” she tries to deal with her hurt with hopes of moving on in her career. “Still climb up hill.” But until the bitter end, she hopes. Her role is less “showy” but as equally nuanced as his.
And both handle the moods and shifting rhythms of the music admirably.
Designer Lee Savage has created a beautiful set—a trap enclosing time and space but lit by six great windows through which the actors can gaze in hope or despair. Jeff Davis’ lighting is subtle and effective.
Pianist Rich Bertone at the great lonely piano leapt agilely from mood to mood and tempo to tempo of the score. He was ably supported by his fine four piece onstage orchestra. Indeed, they all so flowed into the time/timelessness of the performance, one did not observe them.
Weaving this production together was director Cato. It is an unusual evening in theatre and distinctly worth experiencing.