Photograph by Karli Cadel Photography
The Last Five Years: “Tragic elements counter-balanced by silly musical numbers.”
This is a classic tale of boy-meets-girl, boy-marries-girl, boy-cheats-on-and-divorces-girl. Not exactly the best fodder for a musical billed as a love story.
So, it might help to bring in a little Aristotle here. In his one foray into theater criticism (called Poetics), the Big A makes some observations about how theater works. One is that we can enjoy seeing things in the theater that we’d never want to see in real life. (He was thinking specifically about Oedipus and his mom)
This story of Jamie and Catherine isn’t in the kill-your-dad-marry-your-mom category of ickiness, but an ugly divorce still doesn’t sound like a good night’s entertainment for most of us. The cleverness of this play is finding a way to entertain the audience by allowing them to have not just empathy with the characters, but also “aha!” moments about their mistakes.
Aristotle observes that a play should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The Last Five Years does have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but it puts them all in a cocktail shaker, and then pours out vignette-sized, non-chronological tastings. That could lead to incoherence, but it doesn’t. It helps with the “aha!” moments and with the empathy.
Jamie and Catherine, in their musical numbers, talk (or sing) past one another throughout the play. It is a love story, but the two lovers never connect or show any sign of intimacy. They each have their solos, and they move past one another in the elaborate and heartbreaking choreography of emptiness as they retrace their relationship.
In “Moving too Fast,” Jamie sings:
- Some people can’t get success with their art
- Some people never feel love in their heart
- Some people can’t tell the two things apart
Jamie believes the demise of their marriage is due to Catherine’s inability to "get success with" her art. Catherine thinks the demise of their marriage is because Jamie never felt love in his heart. They’re both right. And they keep dancing and singing past one another.
The tragic elements are also counter-balanced by plenty of silly musical numbers and comic lyrics. In Jamie’s number “Shiksa Goddess,” he revels in the anticipated misery of his Jewish family at his match with Catherine. Her non-Jewishness trumps any other faults she may have:
- If you had a pierced tongue, that wouldn’t matter.
- If you once were in jail or once were a man,
- If your mother and your brother had relations with each other
- And your father was connected with the Gotti clan,
- I’d say, “Well, nobody’s perfect!”
In Catherine’s “A Summer in Ohio,” she describes the joys of performing in summer repertory in fly-over country, because it’s all the work she can get:
- I could have a mansion on a hill.
- I could lease a villa in Sevilla,
- But it wouldn’t be as nice
- As a summer in Ohio
- With a gay midget named Karl
- Playing Tevya and Porgy.
The musical numbers are fitting and musically pleasing, and both Williams and Cusimano are up to the task vocally.
- The Last Five Years
- Cygnet Theater, Old Town
- Director, Rob Lutfy
- Book/music/lyrics, by Jason Robert Brown
- Cast, Jamie: Michael Louis Cusimano; Catherine: Racquel Williams; Cello: Erika Boras Tesi and Diana Elledge; Violin: Sean Laperruque; Bass: Mackenzie Leighton; Piano: Patrick Marion; Guitar: Jim Mooney
- Runs through, Nov 17