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The Last Five Years (Echelon/Railway Street)

The Last Five Years is a song cycle written and composed by Jason Robert Brown about the rise and fall of the romance between a successful writer (Jamie, played by Anthony Harkin) and struggling actress (Cathy, Hollie Andrew). The short, 80 minute show has an unusual structure: Cathy and Jamie sing alternate songs. Cathy's songs start at the end of the relationship and we follow her story backwards in time to the beginning five years earlier. Jamie's songs start at that beginning and move forward.

In form and content there are some superficial similarities to Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along but The Last Five Years is its own piece.

I found that the story works a lot better on stage than on CD. There's the buzz you get from watching live performers and a live band of course. The show also contains dialogue - or rather, monologues - not on the CD (I think) that help explain what's going on. And seeing events played out before your eyes - instead of just listening to disembodied voices - helps immensely. The moments where the two characters first touch and first harmonise are electric (albeit at a minor voltage) in a way difficult to recreate on a recording. Further, choices by director Dean Bryant (also a lyricist/book writer of that rare beast - the successful Australian musical) set the songs better: when they fit into the timeline of the relationship (especially when a song is a response, or the flipside, of an earlier number), or when they are representational as opposed to presentational, that is, when it is the character singing an audition piece or performing for the other person as opposed to the actor singing the inner feelings of the character.

Harkin and Andrew give strong, passionate, engaging performances, though as actors both lack a certain nuance and as singers both suffer from the occassional sour tone or intonation problem. They're evenly matched but Andrew's is the more difficult challenge. This is due to the show's structure and the creative choices Brown made when creating the piece.

Jamie gets all the best numbers early on: his songs are funnier, more dynamic and have high energy endings. He's established as the more likable character because we are exposed to his optimistic youthfulness first.

In contrast Cathy gets mostly dour songs in the first half; they're more formless (or at least not in a recognisable and catchy style). Her character isn't as sympathetic because our very first view of Cathy is of her crying and, well, whining. (There's nothing wrong with showing a character in pain, but you need to establish her first so the audience can empathise.) It's not until the song before the wedding proposal (which acts as the story's dramatic fulcrum), that Cathy gets a number to match the intensity and likeability of the bulk of Jamie's songs to that point. She has a few more after that, including the song following the proposal.

The arc of Jamie's character is easily distinguished. It moves straight forward in time, it's familiar (husband begins to lose interest in marital life as fame and temptation call) and he even gets a long, spoken monologue which metaphorically spells it all out (if it wasn't obvious already).

With Cathy the audience needs to work harder: her story moves backwards and the extent and nature of her internal change isn't as obvious.

I thought that there was a chance given the apparent lack of interaction between the characters that I was going to be bored - but I never was. Despite what could be an alienating format and potentially confusing structure The Last Five Years engages the mind and the heart.

Comments (1)

Cari:

The music alone is to die for! "Nobody Needs to Know" is so powerful and insightful. Listening to the words alone without watching the musical, I easily understood the story. The songs show off vocal talents to perfection. Since Jamie goes forward in time and Cathy beckwards, it is exciting to hear when their timelines meet in the middle of the five year timespan in "The Next Ten Minutes". On a different note, though, many of Jamie's songs are incredibly humorous and catchy. No matter what is is you're looking for in a musical, you will find it all in The Last Five Years (real-life situations, humor, pain, joy... etc.)!!! I would highly recommend this musical to anyone and everyone!

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