I first saw the intimate, two-person musical The Last Five Years when Modern Muse presented it almost two years ago, and now it's being offered by Denver Center Attractions. The two productions provide an almost-textbook example of the difference that staging, casting and a director's overall conception can make. Because while I remembered the plot, tone and some of the songs, I still felt as if I were seeing an entirely new show in the Galleria.
The Last Five Years tells the story of the breakup of a marriage. Jamie and Cathy met in New York when he was an aspiring writer, and she an actress. Success came fast for him, while she continued to inhabit the dreary, ego-pummeling world of auditions and summer stock — with predictable results for their relationship. The songs — all solos, with one exception — reveal a triumphant Jamie noticing his effect on other women and fighting the desire to use it, a sulky Cathy refusing to attend his publishing party. He resents her neediness and insecurity, she his arrogance and self-involvement. "I will not fail so you can be comfortable, Cathy," he sings. But he has more generous moments. In a wonderfully vital and energetic song, he tells her the story of Schmuel, the tailor, who felt unable to sew a glorious dress he had in mind until, magically, time stopped and then began turning backwards. The dress was completed and, now a young man, Schmuel was able to give it to the woman he loved. Jamie exhorts his wife to take her courage in her hands in the same way and to realize her dreams.
Playwright Jason Robert Brown has hit on an interesting device to make this relatively commonplace story more poignant and more complex: While Jamie relates events as they happen, Cathy reveals them backwards. At the very beginning, she weeps over Jamie's goodbye letter and, minutes later, he erupts onto the scene singing rapturously about the "shiksa goddess" he's just met.
Shannan Steele and Chris Crouch, who alternate as Cathy and Jamie with Johanna Brickey and Thom Miller, are younger than Susan Dawn Carson and Jeff Roark, the stars of the Modern Muse production, and this single difference — which certainly fits better with the script — shifts the play's emotional axis. Their hopeful vulnerability makes the breakup both sadder and, paradoxically, less sad. Sadder because their passion is uncontaminated by experience, the rueful knowledge possessed by most older people that love can go very, very wrong. This Jamie has the gleeful energy of a man in his early twenties, and he makes us feel to our bones just how rapturous, scary and disorienting rapid success can be. And her corresponding youth makes it clearer why this Cathy would stake everything on love. But this production is also less sad because youth is, in itself, hopeful; we can imagine these two people some day taking what they've learned into saner, wiser and more fulfilled relationships.
Crouch and Steele are both terrific performers, brimming with energy, poised and charismatic, possessed of lovely, expressive voices. Crouch makes Jamie real and funny and quirky, and Steele is often touching as Cathy — though I wish both would avoid that awful dissolving-into-self-pitying-tears singing style that's come to dominate singing in musicals these days.
The city of New York was front and center in the Modern Muse production, with the set dominated by a looming skyscraper, its windows made of photographs; immediately after they'd married, Jamie and Cathy turned and gazed together at the skyline. At the Galleria, the set is slicker and the sense of place more generic — which universalizes the story, but at some expense. It's not just making it as artists that's important to these two, but making it where it counts: in New York. Director Ray Broderick is working with a smaller playing area, but he has also deliberately placed the couple closer to each other at several key moments, so that when, for instance, Jamie laments the breakup, Cathy is actually standing right behind him, filled with the glow of their early love. This is distracting, and it detracts from the wistful irony of the moment.
This production is more emotionally exuberant than Modern Muse's, staged in a smooth, comfortable style and with a focus on personal intimacy. But Modern Muse gave us a broader view, leaving us a little sadder and a little more thoughtful.