The Last Five Years, Jason Robert Brown's imaginative reminiscence/dissection of a crumbling, contemporary marriage, debuted at Street Theater Company last night (Friday, May 4), in a compelling production helmed by director Lauren Shouse and musical director Rollie Mains. Starring two relative newcomers to the Nashville stage-Kacie Phillips and Ryan Greenawalt-it's an engaging and intriguing 90-plus minutes of theater that is likely to leave you introspective and, somehow, oddly satisfied.
You might, of course, feel like a voyeur while watching the marriage of Cathy Hyatt and Jamie Wellerstein come together, then unravel under the strain of their conflicting careers and personal aspirations, but throughout The Last Five Years reverberates the feeling of truth and brutal honesty that renders you powerless to turn away. Inspired by events in Brown's own life (his first failed marriage to Theresa O'Neill apparently serves as the basis for the story-or there are at least enough similarities that she threatened legal action in 2001 when the show premiered), there is an honesty and a candor to be found in The Last Five Years that is lacking in so much other musical theater, hence you enter at your own risk.
Yet there is a charm to be found in this candid treatment of the marriage of two creative types brought together by their shared joie de vivre and their artistic temperaments: Cathy is an aspiring actress, Jamie an up-and-coming author. With all the challenges of married life foisted upon them, coupled with the impermanence of their career arcs, the young couple must face the vagaries of life directly, the intimacy and emotion-packed reality of their lives be damned.
Brown (who has been happily married since 2003 to composer/music director Georgia Stitt, who grew up in West Tennessee and got her undergraduate degree at Vanderbilt, thus proving that there is always a Nashville connection, theatrically speaking) confidently plays with the normal construct of time and place by telling the story of the romance and marriage of Cathy and Jamie from opposing, if counter-balanced, angles and perspectives. We first meet Cathy as the relationship is coming to its end, and her story is told in reverse chronological order. Jamie, on the other hand, is in the initial throes of passion as the love affair begins when we first meet him, and his character arc follows the typical chronological form to which we are all accustomed.
Their shared story-as well as their individual stories-are related in such an engaging way that the conceit of the musical's skewed chronology is rather clear from the beginning, making it easy to follow the course of their relationship. In fact, the one act play moves along at an impressive pace, the story and the performances of the two actors holding your rapt attention for what seems like under an hour, but is in actuality over 90 minutes.
Credit for the show's pacing is due Shouse-who directs her cast with a skilled eye and a self-assurance that permeates the proceedings from top to bottom-and Mains, whose six-member musical ensemble perform Brown's score with warmth, understanding and a sense of immediacy that adds to the overall effect of The Last Five Years. Shouse's work, of course, is made doubly challenging by the fact that the show is double-cast: Phillips and Greenawalt star in the first two weekends of the show's run, with real-life married couple Cori Anne Laemmel and Tyson Laemmel performing for the final two. It's an interesting choice, to be sure, to cast the show in this manner, resulting in two decidedly different renderings that, quite frankly, leaves us more than a little intrigued and anticipatory.
Phillips gives a wonderfully nuanced performance as Cathy, perfectly capturing the conflicting natures of her actress character's personality. Granted, she seems only slightly less self-absorbed than Jamie, but Phillips invests in Cathy a charming appeal that is somehow more accessible and genuine. There is little interaction between the two actors, in the traditional sense, given that they are coming at the story from different angles, but Phillips manages to show Cathy's growing dependence on her husband-and the overtones of her competitive nature and what it wreaks on the marriage-even as the story moves backwards. Her performance of "Climbing Uphill/The Audition Sequence," which is a favorite of actresses of a certain age, is refreshingly played and warmly received, and Phillips' lovely voice does quite well by Brown's terrific score.