If one sees something at Constellation Theatre, one expects it to be good. And The Last Five Years is very good. This musical, written by Jason Robert Brown, tells the story of two twentysomethings: how they fall in love, how they hope for each other, struggle with each other, and eventually fall painfully apart from each other. It’s an archetypal story that we’ve read in novels and perhaps experienced in our own lives. Since the tale is told both backward and forward simultaneously, you may have the feeling of watching an unavoidable automobile collision as their relationship progresses towards its bittersweet conclusion. You may, in fact, find yourself from time to time pleading with each protagonist to make a different choice.
From the first note, the voices of Adelina Mitchell (as Catherine) and Alex Stone (as Jamie), together and individually, are a solid rock the audience can rely on to support the evening’s exhilaration, hope, and grief. There is no warming up here. These two come out ready to do battle. They take no prisoners with either the dramaturgical or the musical challenges, and over the course of the evening there are, as Ellington said in another context, moments of “excruciating ecstasy.”
Have you ever had this experience? You’re friends with a couple. After some time, the couple breaks up. Then each member of the couple separately relies on you as their good friend to listen while they talk about what happened. Listening to the story being told, it is as though your friends are seeing events from opposite ends of a telescope. That’s what watching the Last Five Years is like. Cathy is experiencing the story “backward” from the present turmoil of the end of their marriage. Jamie is experiencing the story “forward” from the buoyant moments of their first meeting. And you get to empathize with both directions at once. That disorientation of the differing perspectives pervades their entire relationship.
At the beginning of their relationship, Jamie is on the verge of a career breakthrough as a writer while Cathy, an actor, is struggling to get agents to come see her onstage in out-of-town productions. Cathy attends Jamie’s book parties. Jamie writes a story for Cathy about allowing oneself to be happy and vows to support her in doing that. At the center point of the play, when their timelines converge, Jamie proposes marriage and the pair sing together for the first time. Unfortunately, from this point, their paths diverge once again until we see Cathy experience her first date with Jamie, wishing him a hopeful “Goodbye Until Tomorrow” while Jamie pens his final, regretful farewell, writing “I Could Never Rescue You.” It’s quite a ride.
The set, a deceptively simple and elegant turntable with steps on the perimeter, allowed for scenes to take place on multiple levels and with multiple layers of stylized movement. The set also emphasized the archetypal aspect of the story, echoing the stark stages of ancient Greek amphitheaters and their stories that often involved preordained outcomes, and fervent, but futile, efforts to avoid them.
The actors are partially surrounded by the instrumentalists, and while there is no visual interaction between the two groups, we are able to witness their musical interaction. There was the sense that these were two groups of musicians that are of equal stature, who shared a mutual respect, commitment, and passion for telling the same story with their different tools. This was stimulating and encouraging to see.
This is a beautiful, facilely written show with words and music that are, you might say, easy on the ear. Here, for instance, is Jamie’s proposal to Cathy:
Will you share your life with me
For the next ten lifetimes?
For a million summers
Till the world explodes,
Till there’s no one left
Who has ever known us apart.
There are so many dreams
I need to see with you…
It’s words like this — and the music that accompanies them — that make The Last Five Years so worth the seeing and the listening to.
Running Time: Approximately 75 minutes, with no intermission.
EXTENDED: The Last Five Years presented by Constellation Theatre will stream as Video On Demand through August 31, 2021. Tickets, $20 each, may be purchased online or by calling the Box Office at (202) 204-7741.
The Last Five Years
Written and composed by Jason Robert Brown
Direction by Kathryn Chase Bryer
Music direction by Marika Countouris
Choreography by Tony Thomas
Starring Adelina Mitchell as Cathy and Alex Stone as Jamie
Conductor/Piano: Marika Countouris
Violin: Jeffry Thurston
Cello 1: Aron Rider
Cello 2: Tim Thulson
Guitar: Alec Green
Bass: Cyndy Elliott
Scenic Designer: A. J. Guban
Costume Designer: Frank Labovitz
Lighting Designer: A.J. Guban
Sound Designer: Gordon Nimmo-Smith
Props Designer: Pamela Weiner
Associate Director: Nick Martin
Technical Director: Mike Salmi
Associate Technical Director: Sean Miller
Production Stage Manager: Katie Moshier
Assistant Stage Manager: Genevieve Dornemann
Automation Operator: L Bruce
Audio 1: Alex Cloud
Audio 2: Phoenix Henkle
Scenic Artist: Megan Hart
Master Electrician: Emma Streett
Light Board Programmer: Paul Callahan
Video Prod & Editing: Blue Land Media
Carpenters: L Bruce, Jeff Campbell, Luke Tudball, Greg Urda
Electricians: Ian Claar, Alex Kozlov, Kristen Roth