The story is timeless. Boy meets girl in New York. Boy is Jewish while girl is a “Shiksa Goddess” (the actual title of one of the show’s songs). Boy is a writer so close to fame that he can hear it calling—and it does, via the ubiquitous cell phone. Girl is an actress pursuing the Backstage trail of early morning auditions, gigantic lines of struggling actors, dismissive casting directors, and summer stock stints in Ohio. The two together are sheer magic… until they’re not. Such is the story of Jamie Wellerstein and Cathy Hiatt in the musical The Last Five Years, written and composed by Jason Robert Brown.
Yet this is not your typical story line. Or musical, for that matter. This modern romance is a song cycle that unfolds in two opposing registers of time: Jamie and Cathy each alternate telling their story alone, he in chronological order, and she in reverse. They meet on stage for a longer time only once, as they join their lives together in marriage, in a duet and dance. Both performers, Adelina Mitchell (Cathy) and Alex Stone (Jamie), lend powerful, nuanced voices and rich interpretations to their songs. Mitchell displays an outstanding range of vocal dynamics and emotion: from delicate, ethereal soprano to a formidable belt capable of conveying primeval wails of sorrow, especially when it dawns on her that “Jamie is over.” Stone has a similarly impressive and flexible vocal range, using falsetto to great effect, and sometimes sounding downright operatic.
The eclectic and enjoyable music juggles a mix of styles: pop, rock, Latin, jazz, Klezmer, blues, sounding, now and then, show tune-ish. Music director Marika Countouris succeeds in capturing the full texture of each song while also delineating the songs’ various musical layers and making the transition between styles smooth and natural. In this, she is beautifully supported by Gordon Nimmo-Smith’s impeccable and elegant sound design.
And, of course, it’s not just the singing. Both Mitchell and Stone are such compelling actors. Mitchell reveals Cathy’s character to us through a complicated gamut of emotions: under her radiance and elation brews a cauldron of pain and disappointment. Stone deftly underlines Jamie’s sparkling, self-absorbed charm with sweetness and occasional sadness as well as ardent earnestness in his optimistic attempts to improve his relationship with Cathy and support her in her own dreams.
A story that plays with time and alternates between he said/she said perspectives is undoubtedly a challenge to stage, but director Kathryn Chase Bryer handles the staging and blocking with mastery and inventiveness. The stage’s turntable plays finely into the feel of time, revealing various moments in the couple’s relationship while interrupting linear time with each turn. It also adds to the timeless aura of the story: the same story of love gone wrong goes round and round, again and again; the records on the turntable may change, the music may be different, but the story repeats itself forever. A.J. Guban’s scenic and lighting design skillfully creates an atmosphere of intimacy that pulls us in to witness the couple’s unravelling and, at the same time, weaves in an air of mystery that enhances the timelessness and keeps us dreaming that somehow it might still work out, even when it doesn’t.
Totally and highly recommended!
The Last Five Years presented by Constellation Theatre Company will be available to stream through video on demand starting on June 22 until July 11, 2021. For more information and to purchase tickets, please visit the Constellation Theatre website.
Top photo: Alex Stone as Jamie Wellerstein and Adelina Mitchell as Cathy Hiatt – Cameron Whitman Photography