Cathy stands center stage, in the spotlight, singing at yet another audition. That is, until Jamie wordlessly steps in front of her and sits on a stool to begin reading from his novel. Cathy, her spotlight now literally and figuratively occupied by her more successful husband, silently retreats, defeated once again.
This stunningly symbolic directorial choice was a highlight of The Last 5 Years, a fantastic musical currently in a wonderful production at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. Directed by Nick DeGruccio, Jason Robert Brown’s highly personal musical known for its unique structure is in very capable hands in a staging that embraces the emotional core of the story while adding a new, modern aesthetic.
The Last 5 Years is the tale of a relationship told in two threads—Cathy (Natalie Storrs) begins the musical at the end of their story and proceeds backwards, while Jamie (Devin Archer) progresses chronologically. The two only interact for one song when their timelines meet in the middle for their engagement and wedding. This structure delivers quite the emotional wallop as it highlights the stark contrast between the giddy early days of newly dating and the heartbreak of separation. We meet Cathy while she is crying over a box of photos from their relationship, devastated that Jamie has just left her, and then cut promptly to Jamie five years prior, who is shouting from the rooftops how thrilled he is to have finally met someone like Cathy, a breath of fresh air compared to every girl who came before her.
As you would expect, Cathy and Jamie’s relationship is an emotional roller coaster, and never without problems. Cathy is an aspiring actress who struggles to book anything more than summer stock theatre in rural Ohio, while Jamie is a literary prodigy, finding success as a published author at a young age. Cathy is hypercritical of both herself and others, often wallowing in her failures in a way that becomes grating while Jamie becomes increasingly self-absorbed and impatient, allowing himself to be swept up in his low-grade fame. While Jamie’s grievances are ultimately indisputably worse, the musical, which is famously inspired by Robert Brown’s first marriage, makes a valiant effort at spreading the blame around, which is helped by showing everything from two perspectives.
The beautiful score is absolutely the highlight of this heartfelt musical that has been a fan favorite since its Off-Broadway debut fifteen years ago. Somewhat remarkably, the show does not feel at all dated. Sure, Cathy and Jamie use iPhones now, and a few obsolete lyrics that were changed for the 2015 film adaptation made it here as well—for example, replacing a reference to the now-defunct Borders with Walmart, and eliminating a reference to Tom Cruise, who is no longer as cool a name-drop. But the themes and basic story are so universal that they translate to any point in time. One element that helped this production feel more contemporary was the smart use of photographs from Jamie and Cathy’s relationship that were projected onto the backdrop of the stage throughout the performance. In an era where our lives are so well-documented by social media and smartphones, it added an extra layer of immediacy and poignancy and brought some vibrancy to an otherwise sparse set.
This show presents quite an acting challenge. Given the way the action unfolds, it essentially demands two solo performances that complement each other without the benefit of being able to play off another person. Archer and Storrs were definitely up to the task, and understandably seemed emotionally drained by the curtain call. What Storrs occasionally lacked in powerhouse vocals she made up for with a very specific acting performance. Portraying an emotional arc in reverse is arguably the more difficult task of the two, and her Cathy went from defeated to almost too exuberant, intentionally overplaying moments with the zeal worthy of an aspiring stage actress. Her “Climbing Uphill,” which is roughly the moment where Cathy starts to lose some of that enthusiasm that toes the line between infectious and obnoxious, was subtly heartbreaking. Archer’s Jamie was very endearing for the first half of the show, which is quite essential because the character needs to be at least briefly likable for the story to work. He made the silly “Schmuel Song,” which I have always found to be a bit of a drag in a show full of memorable musical numbers, a comedic highlight, and his vocals remained consistently solid throughout. Unfortunately, there were a couple of microphone issues at the performance I attended, but neither actor missed a beat.
As a longtime fan of this musical, I was very excited to see it live for the first time, and this production did not disappoint. At a concise running time of just over 80 minutes, it’s a rare contemporary musical where I would hardly change a thing. It’s a simple, universal story that more than delivers on every emotional front—what more can you ask for?
The Last 5 Years runs at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts through February 12th. Tickets range from $20-70 and can be purchased at www.lamiradatheatre.com.