“The Last Five Years” currently playing at Signature Theatre has a very strong a dedicated following and it is understandable why, as it has some endearing characters and an interesting structure. At the same time the show has had some criticisms that were evident in this production. I don’t intend for this to be a negative discussion of this production, because I found it to be an enjoyable experience but there were some glaring issues with this show and this production that would make me only recommend it to a certain segment of the population that I feel the show may resonate with.
The show is a two-character musical that chronicles the relationship for Jamie, a successful young author, and Cathy, a struggling actress, over the length of their five year relationship. The story of the two characters only intersects once during the entire show, as Jamie’s story is told from after he first meets Cathy until the end of the relationship and Cathy’s story is told from the end of the relationship backwards to the first date. In only one song are the characters at the same time and space and interacting with each other. That in of itself puts a lot of pressure on the actors to carry the show as they are each basically singing each song as a solo. That leads me to my first and biggest issue with this production. The show used a thrust stage, meaning seating was on three sides of the stage. With each song being a solo, the actor was having to perform to the entire audience. That resulted in the actor’s back being to you for roughly one-third of the show. There was generally no other action on the stage other than the actor performing, so you are stuck watching the back of the actor for portions of each song. The show was clearly staged to combat that issue, but for me it became distracting and difficult to truly connect with the characters when they are often having their back to you, or in profile.
Jamie was played by James Gardnier and he was the stronger of the two performers most evidenced by the fact that the energy level of the production reached higher levels as compared to when Erin Weaver’s Cathy was center stage. His comedic timing in the numbers “Shiksa Goddess”, “Moving too Fast”, and “The Schmuel Song” made you gravitate to his character and his performance. You are able to identify and connect with his character. As the show progressed I found myself pulling more for him than Cathy, which clearly wasn’t the intention of the show. I considered the fact that based on the shows structure it was always going to be more difficult to identify with Cathy as you first meet her when she is singing the song “Still Hurting”, which is about the end of her relationship with Jamie. Conversely, in the very next song you meet a 23 year old Jamie who is getting his big break as an author and has just met this amazing girl. However, the character of Cathy has two funny numbers in “A Summer in Ohio” and “Climbing Uphill/Audition Sequence” and they just never reached the quality of Jamie’s early numbers. The character of Cathy never seemed to get beyond the self-doubting character that was present in the opening number until the very last song, but by then it was too late.
Lastly, I would note that this is not a musical where you are going to be walking out of the theatre humming the tunes you just heard. There are some very lovely songs in the show and there are some memorable moments that are more due to the performances of those songs by the actors as compared to the songs themselves. All that being said, I am still contemplating whether to purchase the original cast recording from the original off-broadway cast.