“Jamie is over, and Jamie is gone…”
And thus begins composer Jason Robert Brown’s iconic two-hander, The Last Five Years, an enfant terrible of contemporary musical theatre for its tricky narrative concept and extremely difficult score.
The musical’s one of my favourites. But it’s one prone to hot debate. The piece’s 2014 film treatment, in particular, was polarizing upon release: despite praising a soaring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan, critics took issue with the musical’s clunky translation from stage to screen. But few acknowledged the underlying problem of a nearly unstageable book.
Local indie company Olive Branch Theatre have taken the challenge head-on, staging the musical in a cavernous converted warehouse space off Dufferin. 183 Geary, usually used as a photography studio, comes pre-fitted with a kitchen and trendy appliances — perfect for representing The Last Five Years’ requisite New York apartment, and eliminating the need for substantial set design.
The story: struggling, insecure actress Cathy and wunderkind, arrogant author Jamie are in love, and then they’re not. It’s a bittersweet but ultimately quite simple story. What makes it unique is how it’s told: Cathy tells their love story backwards, and Jamie starts at the beginning. The couple alternates solo songs, and their timelines cross only once, at their wedding.
A few problems with that: perpendicular timelines make fostering intimacy between Cathy and Jamie really, really hard. Each song is a soliloquy, and choices need to be made about who their intended audiences might be. As well, Cathy and Jamie’s respective timelines are actually linear: they don’t hop around from moment to moment. Without a careful directorial plan, however, those moments might nonetheless seem random — the switches between characters are offered no solutions by Brown’s book or score. I’ve seen quite a few productions of The Last Five Years, and the movie is a twice-a-year watch for me: I don’t know if any treatment of the work I’ve seen has made perfect dramaturgical sense.
Olive Branch Theatre’s tackling of Cathy and Jamie’s fractious love story is a valiant one: AJ Bridel as Cathy in particular is transcendent. With a voice like water and comic timing to boot, she’s a star, perhaps even overly so — it’s difficult to believe Cathy’s struggling to find acting work when she can sing like that. Bridel has a tendency of scooping up towards higher notes, but she plays it off as a stylistic choice for Cathy. And when that high belt gets to sparkle, it’s nothing short of magical: “A Part of That” brought the house down on opening night, and with good reason. She nailed it.
Seth Zosky as Jamie is strong, too, but the role brings more challenges for him to overcome. “The Schmuel Song” is a wordy, prone-to-dawdling Klezmer tune, and Zosky dropped a few lyrics on opening night. Jamie’s repertoire, too, skews to the high side of tenor range: Zosky usually rocked stylish flips from belt into falsetto, but some high notes felt like they were being played safe. “Nobody Needs to Know” was Zosky’s strongest outing on opening night, confident and musically strong.
Director Dan Petrenko has played with Brown’s book interestingly, if not always effectively: scenelets with overt COVID-19 references are amusing in the moment, but they further confuse two already muddy timelines. Petrenko’s also used the echoing, 183 Geary warehouse space quite well: sometimes Cathy joins the orchestra on a visible second level, offering nuance and levels to a set which is otherwise just Cathy and Jamie’s apartment. I do wish that upstairs space, or even the staircase to get there, had been flexed more — there was more room to play with than was used. Perhaps a more complicated spatial playground might have made for more chemistry between Jamie and Cathy: again, some of that disconnect is inherent to The Last Five Years’ book, but the relationship between Bridel and Zosky’s characters felt robbed of an intimacy which might make audiences root for the couple or mourn their split.
But the orchestra: oh, that orchestra. Pianist and music director Benjamin Kersey has wrangled Brown’s extremely complicated score into submission — no small feat. The intricate piano line is rounded out by guitar from Erik Patterson and violin from Jeimmi Carrasco, and even in that reverberating, concrete-walled studio, the band sounds fantastic. Together on opening night, they handled dropped lyrics and missed entrances well — musically, this treatment of The Last Five Years is superb.
Olive Branch Theatre’s Last Five Years is one with incredibly high highs — the team has wrung humour from wherever it might be available, and Brown’s score sounds glorious live. Some opening night snafus might be attributed to a long tech week, maybe, or seasonal allergies in the case of Zosky’s falsetto and Bridel’s frequent throat-clearing. Some technical elements were questionably messy: a “Schmuel Song” light cue came full minutes too early on opening night, and “Schmuel”’s talking clock didn’t seem to cooperate with the creative team, either.
But all in, Olive Branch’s Last Five Years is a solid production of a troubled script — and musically, it’s as good as Brown’s work gets.
The Last Five Years runs at Olive Branch Theatre through May 15. Tickets are available here.