Confession time: I have come to the gradual realization that Jason Robert Brown is my favorite Broadway composer.
I know. Shocking. And I say this not to give those Rodgers and Hart die-hards heart attacks and send those Miranda enthusiasts enraged to Twitter, but to explain that I was ecstatic when I saw Artistry had “The Last Five Years” on its season lineup.
Perhaps the most well-known obscure musical (if that makes any sense as a category) is Jason Robert Brown’s “The Last Five Years.” With music, lyrics, and book by Brown, “The Last Five Years” has never seen Broadway, but has been preserved and gained traction and popular momentum through its 2002 Off-Broadway cast recording.
Composed of fourteen songs (and a few, rare, intermittent monologues), the two-person musical chronicles the romantic relationship between take-off author Jamie Wellerstein and struggling actress Cathy Hiatt. Jamie’s perspective is told in chronological order and Cathy’s is told backwards: the two characters only sharing a brief moment together in the middle when their stories overlap.
Seemingly simple in arc, as the evening progressed I developed a greater appreciation for the challenges the show presents to its cast and creative team. The audience is fed two versions of the same story, both from relatively unreliable narrators, each with their own frustrations and flaws. How then, does the production not favor one side of the story and present a balanced, unbiased presentation of Jamie and Cathy’s relationship? One that lets the audience form their own opinion of what ultimately goes wrong.
It is in this attempt to remain neutral that Artistry struggles to keep its balance.
One cannot help but fall for the charismatic Ryan London Levin’s Jamie. Mr. Levin is comfortably loose on the small stage and has navigated the intricacies of his character with definite finesse. His interpretation of “The Schmuel Song” was silly and touching, just as his exploration of “Nobody Needs to Know” was painful and honest, and he laid his vulnerable portrayal of Jamie open for the audience.
In contrast, Aly Westberg O’Keeffe’s Cathy was often walled off, keeping the audience at a safe distance. It was only during her brief meltdown during “See, I’m Smiling” that I felt Ms. O’Keeffe really let Cathy fly and allowed the audience over the wall to share in her frustration. This moment, and when Jamie and Cathy’s timelines overlap during “The Next Ten Minutes.” Mr. Levin and Ms. O’Keeffe had fantastic chemistry and their performances felt truly authentic as they waltzed and giggled across the stage.
Director Elena Giannetti was able to create some beautiful moments on stage. Among them, the lingering final composition of Jamie and Cathy stand out. Too often, though, I felt that her interpretation of Cathy’s songs were restrictive, forcing Ms. O’Keeffe to confine herself to a chair, a block of light, or behind the driver’s seat; where Mr. Levin was allowed to strut across the stage like it was a catwalk. And the beats of address felt more appropriate during Jamie’s songs, where Cathy’s often left me confused. Two distinctive characters were formed, but the different levels of vulnerability didn’t allow for the give-and-take that this show requires.
Character emphasis aside, both Mr. Levin and Ms. O’Keeffe do Mr. Brown’s score justice and any fan of “The Last Five Years” soundtrack should have no reservations. These two actors can sing! I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention Anita Ruth on the piano and Joan Griffith serving triple duty on the guitar, bass, and mandolin. I especially enjoyed watching Ms. Griffith lean back and rock out with Mr. Levin during “Moving Too Fast.”
Housing the band as well as the cast, scenic designer Benjamin Olsen’s compact switch-back set worked as a physical interpretation of the journey of Jamie and Cathy’s relationship, with its highs and lows. Lighting designer Erin Belpedio highlighted moments along the relationship’s timeline which, in turn, emphasized the backdrop’s allusion to passing years. Overall, Artistry’s black box theatre services the intimate production well; allowing the audience to share in the excitement, trepidation, and insecurity of the last five years of Jamie and Cathy’s relationship.
At eighty minutes with no intermission, “The Last Five Years” is a quick and enjoyable evening. And no one can complain about the music this production provides. However, I left the show disappointed that Artistry was hit and miss in equally exploring the full depths of Jamie and Cathy’s journeys and proving the show to be something more than just an obscure (albeit fantastic Jason Robert Brown) soundtrack.