A favorite among contemporary musical theatre lovers, Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years
has been championed as one of his best. After the show opened at the Minetta Lane Theatre in 2002, its original cast recording under the new Sh-K-Boom label spread like wildfire through communities of aspiring young actors and composers, inspiring a new generation of musical theatre. Brown has been recognized as a leader in adapting theatre for modern audiences and creating pieces that are so relatable, they are almost cathartic.
Due to its format, The Last Five Years is the type of musical that may work better in concert rather than a fully-staged production. Brown's music is poignant, lyrics are clever and orchestra arrangements are harmonious. The issue, however, is the inherent disconnect between ill-fated lovers. It is hard to root for a relationship when we already know the outcome and never get the chance to really relish in its high points, which we must assume have occurred at some point over these five years. Because the story is told from two separate perspectives and elapses both forward and backward, we only get to see them standing in the same place at the same time during their wedding when the actors must jam pack an entire show's worth of honesty into one moment in order for us to believe in the (former) strength of their bond. Both fortunately and unfortunately, Brown's strength clearly lies in composing beautiful lamenting ballads which results in a focus on the demise and not the building of the relationship.
The production currently running at Actors' Playhouse has done its best to tackle these built-in flaws. The Last Five Years is always a great opportunity to highlight talent and Actors' showcases Broadway's Janet Dacal and Carbonell nominee Christopher A. Kent. Dacal's crystal clear mix and soaring belt are featured well on her sweetly reflective "I'm a Part of That" and the ballsier "I Can Do Better Than That." But it is her version of "Summer in Ohio" that lifts our spirits with her perfect comedic timing. Kent shines in his brutally unforgiving and sobering "Nobody Needs to Know" at the end of the show when we see his character grow up almost overnight. Director David Arisco wisely uses the structure of the show to place focus on each lover's arc of excited anticipation to unraveled heartbreak (or the reverse). The reference to time throughout the show couldn't be missed if you tried, but designer Sean McClelland created a gorgeous hourglass set including a cascading waterfall that merely hints at the passing of time. Overall, it is Brown's music that is the star of the show and music director Manny Shvartzman brilliantly leads his five-piece band through intricate orchestrations featuring a rich blend among the strings.
The Last Five Years is a beautiful, albeit heart-wrenching, compilation of some of the best contemporary musical theatre written and Actors' Playhouse has created a magnificent version, although audiences may not leave with the highest of spirits. This is not to say that all theatre should be uplifting. Rather, all theatre should be thought-provoking and, in that, The Last Five Years is most definitely successful.
Janet Dacal and Christopher A. Kent in rehearsal at Actors' Playhosue