A show to fall in, and out of love.. [by James Wenley]
In the middle of Musical The Last Five Years, Jamie and Cathy pledge their loves and their lives in the song The Next Ten Minutes, which features both a tender proposal (“Will you share your life with me / For the next ten minutes? / .... And if we make it till then can I ask you again for another ten?”, and the wedding vows (“Will you share your life with me / Forever / For the next ten lifetimes?”). It’s a love song full of dreams and beautiful sentiment in its lyrics, but melodically it’s slow, heavy, with a hint of the sinister. With a real sense of musical foreboding, not the soaring love song the lyrics suggest – this love, and its platitudes, are doomed.
But you don’t have to wait to the end of the show to find this out, nor even this middle. Right at the beginning, Cathy (Cherie Moore) tells it blunt: “Jamie is over and Jamie is gone / Jamie's decided it's time to move on… And I'm still hurting”. Her story starts at the end, and moves backwards, from this moment of finality through to the first faltering beats of her heart. Jamie’s (Tyran Parke) story meanwhile goes from start to finish – from puppy dog eyes to the jaded brow. It’s a gimmicky device (See also, Harold Pinter’s Betrayal), but knowing at least the start and end of one of the stories makes us focus on all that goes on in between, trying to fit together the pieces of why and how.
Written and composed by Jason Robert Brown, the musical has achieved cult success, premiering in Chicago in 2001 and playing off-Broadway the following year. Brown drew from his own failed marriage in writing the material, which led to threats of a legal challenge from his ex-wife which saw Brown rewrite one of the songs to less overtly mirror his own life. Whether the creation of the show was therapy or otherwise, and there certainly seems to be a hint of introspection, the end product is an articulate look at relationship stages, dynamics, and mutual destruction.
With none of our major companies in Auckland jumping on the rights to the show, this local production comes from new company Last Tapes, who make an impressive debut, with Jennifer Ward-Lealand directing, and Robin Kelly musical director.
The Herald Theatre stage is given a sleek wood floor, suggesting New York sophistication. The three piece band (Piano, Guitar and Bass Guitar) are packed tightly into the corner. The few other accoutrements are a moveable bed, desk, chairs and shelf. The stage walls are white washed, forming mountain peeks at the top. Above that, lit stars. There’s something of the transcendental, the Musical Theatre Factory dream working here, at odds with the relationship reality, a clever set in an intimate space from designer Jessika Verryt. Geometric shapes on the walls however look out of place – noticeable, but not distinct enough to seem to represent anything. Lighting designer Andrew Potvin shines some beautiful colour into the space, and lights under the rostra at the back are a nice touch, though there’s a tendency to draw attention to the lighting changes, rather than drawing us into the action.
The love story between Jamie and Cathy is one that emotionally we want to believe in. Jamie’s enthusiasm in his opening song, praising his Shiksa Goddess, is infectious and catches the excitement of first love that we’ve all experienced. The catchy Schmuel Song, when the couple are celebrating christmas, sees Jamie write a story for Cathy for as a way of inspiring her to go for her dreams of acting (“Cathy, you get to be happy!”). It’s a genuinely lovely gift – having someone believe in you - and in this moment we really can see Jamie’s love for Cathy. But it’s all tempered by our memory of Cathy’s pain and heartache. Why does it all go wrong?
The cracks for Jamie appear immediately after the wedding, and that foreboding Next Ten Minutes, as he transitions into married life. In A miracle would happen, he complains that all the woman that he wants to sleep with find him attractive now that he’s married. The terminal phrase “I’m fine” has also crept in. He becomes more consumed with his career as published author and book tours. Meanwhile, we now see Cathy regressing more and more in love with Jamie, and it’s tragic.
I’ve enjoyed regular Australian ditch-jumper Tyran Parke’s performances before, but here, in apparently something of a dream role, he really shines. His rich voice brings us with him on Jamie’s five year journey, capturing the heights of love, and then maneuvering into Jamie’s less than sympathetic conflicted character in the second half. Newcomer Cherie Moore’s voice is rawer, but there’s an honesty in her performance that carries the character through. Her wistful performance of I can do better than that is a standout moment in the show. Cherie’s stage experience is less extensive than Tyran’s and it does show – Tyran’s Jamie dominates the stage.
Jason Robert Brown is very a clever lyricist, his words convincing as the idiosyncratic thoughts and speech of the characters. The music is memorable, and is especially great as different rhythms and moods are played against each other based on the different timeframes of Jamie and Cathy. With merely three musicians, the band brings the music vividly to our ears.
Five years is a long time to be in a relationship. As we go forward, and back, we see that there’s nothing decisive that ends Jamie and Cathy. Its death by a thousand cuts. She’s suspicious, always on his case. He gives into his temptation, and is unfaithful. Even so, the greatest betrayal seems to be when Jamie considers loving someone else: “Since I need to be in love with someone / Maybe I could be in love with someone like you”. Both Jamie and Cathy are revealed to be vapid, self-interested, bringing out the worst in each other. In other words, they turn out to be not very nice people. Maybe they rushed into to it too fast, promising impossible things (Cathy: “You don't have to change a thing”, Jamie: “Just tell me what to do”). What they say they want, and what they really want, doesn’t match up.
But isn’t that true for us all? It’s dressed up with musical panache, but it feels like a pretty true exploration of the mess that is relationships. They’ll be a lot of indentifying going on I’m sure.
A familiar and bittersweet look at relationships, warts and all… with a great score!
The Last Five Years is presented by Last Tapes Theatre Company and plays at The Herald Theatre until 17th March. More details at THE EDGE.
SEE ALSO: Theatreview review by Melisa Martin