Michael L. Quintos
OnStage Associate Los Angeles Critic
Featuring minimal but effective staging, spectacular performances, and, of course, gorgeous songs from composer Jason Robert Brown, the two-character musical "THE LAST FIVE YEARS" is finishing up its final set of performances at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts through February 12.
Beautifully subtle yet still powerfully resonant, this L.A.-area regional revival of the 2001 cult off-Broadway musical directed by Nick DeGruccio brilliantly showcases the catharsis of heartbreak while also providing glimpses of the giddy euphoria of falling in love. And as we see play out in the musical, there are some cases where you frequently can't have one without the other.
For the uninitiated, Brown's cleverly deconstructed, semi-autobiographical love story is told from two points of view—one told in reverse, starting from the sad ending of the relationship, while the other tracks the same romance, but from its happy beginnings right up until the bitter separation. This couple's five-year relationship is explored without either character directly interacting with each other, providing their own personal solo songs/monologues about their feelings throughout their separate moments on stage.
As expected, both of their stories' timelines eventually meet in the middle, where we see the one truly shared high point of the characters' affair (in a sung duet, natch) and the paths they each travel to get there.
It's not much of a stretch to say that this tricky narrative structure may cause a few audience members—mainly casual, non observant viewers and most newcomers—to scratch their heads in confusion initially, particularly if this production is one's first time exposed to the show, unaware of such a machination at play.
I, of course, was fortunate enough to know about the show going into it, which perhaps contributed to my full enjoyment (and, ultimately, my full comprehension) of the show's dual timelines. Knowing that the characters' relationship is destined to break apart, clues and cues begin to take shape—which is both satisfying as an audience member to observe and, yet, heartbreaking as someone who wants to see these beautiful young people work out their problems.
In the matinee performance I reviewed, a couple of audience members seated behind me whispered that it FINALLY dawned on them that the show uses divergent timelines—with just a half hour left until the end of the show! I feel a little bad for them, because half the pleasure of this musical is the discovery of criss-crossing motifs and narrative details that inform the overall scope of the story.
Perhaps a small note or disclaimer in the program might have helped with this, uh, minor detail… but on the whole (I hope anyway), that the show's opposing chronologies is clear from the get-go for most audience members. Be that as it may, "THE LAST FIVE YEARS" is quite engaging regardless.
And, luckily, the audience will surely be too entranced by the electric performances provided by the show's two superb actors, both of whom are adept at conveying their respective characters' emotional journeys while belting out their spectacular voices. On one end is Natalie Storrs who plays Cathy, a vivacious, struggling New York City actress who frustratingly leaps from audition to audition hoping for her next big break (which, sadly, never comes). On the other end is Devin Archer who plays Jamie, a handsome, up-and-coming novelist who later discovers first-hand the joys of success (and, sadly, the side-effects of such success).
When the musical begins, we first meet an inconsolable Cathy—in utter devastation, lamenting about the end of her marriage. We then meet Jamie—five years earlier—bright-eyed and ecstatic about just meeting Cathy.
Soon their disparate paths begin to unravel, layer after layer. Jamie, career-wise, finds success with his first novel, which leads to a lifestyle where he's treated to book signings and parties, and being showered with boundless praise. Cathy, meanwhile, has been stuck in a kind of aspirational limbo (and shows it), which often resorts to her accepting the less glamorous world of Ohio summer stock among other non-actorly gigs. Jamie, for his part, can't seem to find the time to visibly support Cathy's projects as he steadily climbs his own ladder, which in turn increases Cathy's resentment all the more when she takes the time to be present for him.
While their relationship may appear a bit rocky from the start, there's no doubt the two recognize that they have something real and authentic. The musical then asks—is it possible to be in love with someone completely incompatible with you? As we witness for the next 90 minutes, there are certainly many reasons why the couple is both destined to fall for each other and, yet, also destined to fall out of love with each other just as easily.
As searing and as gut-wrenching as this musical can be, "THE LAST FIVE YEARS"—more often than not—rests heavily on the shoulders of the two actors tasked with bringing Cathy and Jaime to life. Thankfully, for La Mirada Theatre's production, they have found two that exceed expectations both singing and acting-wise.
As Cathy, Storrs confidently provides a character that rightfully earns both our empathy and, yep, our disdain. She brilliantly depicts a woman caught between unselfishly supporting her husband's success yet still selfishly longing for a bit of spotlight for herself. Storrs helps us understand Cathy's very relatable frustrations.
As Jamie, Archer easily charms everyone, solidifying also why Cathy falls for him so hard in the first place. His unbridled joy in the "beginning"—brought on by both Cathy and his own book deal—feels endearingly genuine, causing us to feel just as giddy for him. This also explains why his (spoiler alert) shocking betrayal later on feels like such a slap in the face to not only Cathy (who, despite her faults, didn't deserve that) but to US, too.
Storrs and Archer's chemistry is both fiery and palpable, which is why we as an audience find ourselves rooting for these very relatable people they are depicting, even though we can plainly see the signs why their marriage doesn't have solid footing.
The spare but admirably effective staging—with excellent visual assists from scenic designer Stephen Gifford, lighting designer Steven Young, and video/graphics designer Keith Skretch— aims the focus mostly on the characters' raw emotions, laid bare and exposed for all to see and hear. Every so often, we see glimpses of their life together, both joyful and sad, projected as remnants from a virtual photo album that pop up behind them. In the Instagram/Snapchat age, this video projection is a smart, sophisticated update.
And in a winning visual metaphor, the normally cramped stage that isolates each character in their respective "corners" finally opens up to a much larger canvas when both characters' points of view converge in the middle, signaling a mutual point of happiness neither character will experience with such intensity ever again. What a beautifully romantic yet heartbreakingly poignant moment to witness.
While "THE LAST FIVE YEARS" is certainly not a perfect show (for instance, the way-too-long "Schmuel Song" certainly outstays its welcome, all for a not-so-big-deal payoff), overall, the show—and La Mirada's production in particular—is a satisfying evening of musical goodness. Under musical director Brent Crayon, Brown's memorable, emotionally tinged score sounds vibrant and amazing with this production's live musical accompanists.
This production isn't just a mere passable iteration of this low-key yet powerful musical, it handily proves itself to be something truly special right from its first melancholy notes. La Miranda has skillfully polished off this under-appreciated gem, so it would be wise to catch it while its still around.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Photos from the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts' production of THE LAST FIVE YEARS by Michael Lamont.
The McCoy Rigby Entertainment presentation of THE LAST FIVE YEARS continues at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts through Sunday, February 12, 2017. The theater is located at 14900 La Mirada Boulevard in the city of La Mirada. Parking is Free. For tickets, visit www.LaMiradaTheatre.com or call (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310.