Saturday, January 20, 2024

"The Last Five Years" at Lyric Arts

Jason Robert Brown truly is one of the best living musical theater composers, his scores viscerally capturing the emotions of the characters and stories. His two-person musical The Last Five Years, inspired by his first (failed) marriage, is a gorgeous song cycle of relationship songs, from funny to heart-breaking. It's almost entirely sung through (in what should be 90 minutes), with the two characters telling their shared story in opposing directions. It's a clever device that not only creates an interesting narrative, but also parallels the story being told - two people who never quite get on the same track. Lyric Arts' production is perfectly cast, with a lush onstage six-piece orchestra, and design elements that add to the storytelling. See this lovely and heart-breaking musical at Lyric Arts in Anoka now through February 11.

Lydia Rose Prior as Cathy (photo by Molly Weibel)
The premise of the story is simple, but told in a complex way. A man and woman meet, fall in love, grow apart, and split up. The unique thing about this familiar story is that one half of the couple tells the story (through song) chronologically, while the other half is simultaneously working through the story backwards from the end. The show begins with a heartbroken Cathy singing about the end of her marriage and a newly lovestruck Jamie singing about this girl he just met. The two timelines cross in the middle when Jamie proposes to Cathy, and continue on to their ultimate conclusions - Cathy happy and hopeful at the beginning of the relationship, Jamie sad and conflicted at the end. It's quite fascinating to watch a relationship grow and disintegrate at the same time, and see how much these two people love each other but realize that they just can't make it work.*

Tommy McCarthy as Jamie (photo by Molly Weibel)
The beauty of the piece is in its sparseness. It doesn't fill in all the blanks, it doesn't give us all the details. But Jason Robert Brown is so gifted in capturing the emotions of a moment in a single song, that the show is almost like a dozen little stories all woven together. You may not know everything about these characters, but you know who they are, thanks to the brilliantly written songs* and the performances of the two actors. I don't think I've seen Lydia Rose Prior before, and she's just lovely as Cathy - a beautiful voice and a performance full of emotion. She has the difficult job of starting at the end - devastated for reasons we have yet to learn, and she goes there in the heart-breaking opening number "I'm Still Hurting." Tommy McCarthy also sings these tricky songs well, adding his own spin on things with some fun choreo, and is so charming and funny that I almost forgot that I don't like Jamie. He's particularly funny in "The Schmuel Song," with multiple accents and characters. The truly remarkable thing about both of their performances is that with one exception, they're in the scene by themselves, singing to an imaginary other person, but still making us believe.

Due to space limitations, the orchestra is often in another room for Lyric Arts' musicals, the sound piped in. But for this piece they've wisely set the orchestra on a series of raised platforms at center stage, allowing the sounds of the instruments (bass and acoustic guitars, violin, grand piano, and not one but two cellos!) to fill the space with a lush and full sound. Under Music Director Ben Emory Larson (on piano), the sound of this intricate score is gorgeous, as any JRB score should be.

Lyric's Artistic Director Laura Tahja Johnson returns to the director's chair with this piece, and brings out all of the emotions, as well as some humor to lighten the load. A timeline stretches out across the floor, and after a brief meeting, Jamie takes his place on one side and Cathy on the other, never meeting or even looking at each other, until the timelines intersect in the middle for one connected scene. Then they switch places on stage, and in the story, from the happy beginning to sad end (or vice versa). They rarely leave the stage, one sitting in the dark while the other tells their side of the story.

photo by Molly Weibel
Projections of images, including of the couple in happier days, play on the multiple screens suspended above the stage. Set pieces such as a desk, or front stoop, or bed are rolled on and off (sometimes a bit clunkily, momentarily distracting from the beauty of the music). Characters are dressed in casual chic clothing, with a sweater or jacket removed or added in each scene to mark the passage of time, changing into wedding attire in the middle, and a costume change at intermission. Intermission, you ask? Yes, for some reason they've stuck in an intermission in this practically perfect 90-minute no intermission musical (my favorite thing), which only serves to break the spell of the story being told, and stop the forward (and backward) momentum in its tracks. (Projection design by Jim Eischen, costume design by Samantha Fromm Haddow, scenic design Greg Vanselow.)

This was my fifth time seeing The Last Five Years, and I appreciate it a little more each time (although I still think Jamie is a jerk). It's probably the finest example of musical duologue (if that's a thing) that we have. With the exception of an unnecessary intermission, Lyric Arts' production is truly lovely, doing justice to the gorgeous score and touching (and sometimes infuriating) story of a relationship coming together and falling apart, simultaneously.

The Last Five Years plays at Lyric Arts in downtown Anoka Thursdays through Sundays until February 11.

*Plot summary borrowed from my reviews of previous productions.