Camelot’s The Last Five Years: Chronology of a Doomed Marriage Told In Pleasant Music and Wry Lyrics
– by Lee Greene
The Last Five Years, the musical currently being presented on stage at the Camelot Theatre in Talent, OR, is basically an autobiographical telling of the story of his own failed five year marriage, by next generation Broadway musical composer wunderkind, Jason Robert Brown (Urban Cowboy, The Bridges of Madison County, Honeymoon in Vegas). Brown, who has been anointed by British theater critic Mark Shenton as “one of the leading new theatrical composers” [Broadways Young(er) Composers, Mark Shenton, The Stage, December 7, 2005] won a Tony Award for Best Score and a Drama Desk Award for Best Music for Parade in 1999, and 2014 Tony Awards for Best Original Score and Best Orchestration for The Bridges of Madison County. The Last Five Years, however, never made it to Broadway, so of course, it didn’t win any Tony Awards. The Last Five Years ran off-Broadway for two months, in 2002, and did win 2002 Drama Desk Awards for Best Music and Best Lyrics.
The Last Five Years is an enjoyable, tuneful creation, by a gifted writer/composer, skillfully incorporating a wide variety of musical genres “including pop, jazz, and classical, klezmer, Latin, Rock, and Folk.” [Wikipedia, The Last Five Years, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Five_Years] But it is also a skewed telling of a failed marriage by one of the spouses, which, though it may satisfactorily air Mr. Brown’s feelings about the failed marriage, intentionally or not produces an unbalanced theatrical presentation of the story. Brown’s ex-wife, Theresa O’Neill, was so unhappy with the show, she threatened legal action. [Young Composer’s Wonder ‘Years’, Scott Vogel, Washington Post, June 17, 2005]
This is basically a two character show. The husband, Jamie, is an up and coming writer on the fast track to success, ala Mr. Brown. The wife, Cathy, is an actress whose career is going nowhere, and more than a little unhappy about it, while also trying to cope with her husband’s increasingly contrasting success, smugness, egotism, and self-adulation. Jamie’s songs tend to be upbeat, energetic, and perky while effectively conveying the intoxication of a young, gifted talent on a meteoric rise to fame and fortune. Cathy’s songs, by contrast, tend to be whiny, masochistic, and comparatively lacking in vitality. The show, which is comprised of 14 songs, is constructed with an odd and unusual contrivance of Jamie and Cathy alternately taking turns presenting solo songs, where he presents the story of their meeting, marriage, and the collapse of their relationship in chronological order. In her turns, sandwiched between his, Cathy presents her side in reverse chronological order, beginning with the end of the marriage and progressing backward to their initial meeting. The only time they get to really share the stage together, and sing as a duet, is in the middle of the show, when the two tellings converge at their marriage. It’s a gimmick that does not help the show nor aid the audience’s comprehension of the trajectory of the relationship or their appreciation of the show. Frankly, at times, it just tends to confuse things, and it’s usually Cathy’s side of the song cycle that suffers as a result of the back and forth. The show’s music is terrific, especially Jamie’s numbers. The lyrics are generally witty and occasionally poetic – even some of Cathy’s songs, especially as she is singing about the earlier stages of their relationship (which comes near the end of the show). The songs are wonderfully orchestrated, with lush arrangements that contrast in a witty way, with the lyrics. Imagine a beautiful string swell to accompany a lyric about the most mundane activity on a routine day – it’s intentionally and very effectively ironic. So at its core, The Last Five Years is an intimate musical, with very good music, and witty lyrics, chronicling a failed marriage in an unbalanced way.
Now, about the Camelot production, which opened on Friday, Sept. 4, and will run through Sunday, Oct. 4 – it’s extraordinarily well done. The Camelot people have done just about everything right in presenting this play: cast, set, staging, lighting, costumes, technical elements like stage projection and sound reinforcement, the whole deal. By far, the best thing about this production, as it should be, is the cast. With this being a minimalist, intimate, two character show, the two actors really have an out-sized burden to carry, in making it work. And as detailed above, on top of everything else the roles call for, the actors must somehow work successfully with the severe imbalance between the roles. Camelot has done an excellent job of finding the right actors for these roles, placing Nathan Monks as the Jamie character and Amanda Andersen as Catherine. Mr. Monks has impressed before on the Camelot stage. He most recently sang the Pontius Pilate role in Camelot’s Jesus Christ Superstar for which he earned plaudits, but even better, delivered a star turn earlier as Joe Gibbs in Camelot’s Sunset Boulevard:
“Nathan Monks provides a terrific Joe Gibbs. . . . Mr. Monks’ singing was superb – he had the finest voice among the entire cast and used it well. But he can also act and held his own on stage against Ms. Genise’s Norma Desmond, which is so important to provide Ms. Genise a foil to play against, enabling her to elevate her performance.” [Star Livia Genise and Camelot Theatre Deliver An Exceptional “Sunset Boulevard”, Jacksonville Review, http://bit.ly/1GnbfIx ]
As great as Mr. Monks may have been in the role of Joe Gibbs in Sunset Boulevard, he delivered an even better performance as Jamie in The Last Five Years. It’s a tricky role. It requires some really first class singing, a lot of energy and enthusiasm, charisma even, and the ability to capture and hold the audience’s attention (“the spotlight” regardless of any stage lighting) as an ambitious, egoistical, smug, self-aggrandizing, self-interested adulterer, without alienating the audience, or generating revulsion of the character instead of shared exhilaration and giddiness at his rapid rise to success. Mr. Monks did all of that superbly – his singing was absolutely wonderful; he has a great voice for this part, and really used it well – clear tones, always on pitch, delivered musically, and just a delight to hear. He provided a terrific rendition of the song, Shiksa Goddess, really selling the idea of his falling head over heels joyously in love with a very desirable and appealing, if culturally different, Cathy. His performance of the pulsing Moving Too Fast was equally consummate and effective in conveying the giddiness and intoxication of a rapid rise to success. And most important, he provided a very nuanced, calculated and winning performance of Nobody Needs to Know, the song in which Jamie lays bare, and tries to rationalize, his adultery – a song which if handled poorly would destroy any appreciation of or sympathy for the character. As in Sunset Boulevard, Mr. Monks provided a fine acting turn as well; he danced, pranced, sashayed, smiled, laughed, gestured, pointed, paused, reflected, even made the most of silences – it was an acting tour de force. The woman sitting in the seat next to me in the audience remarked before taking her leave from the theater, that “[Mr. Monks’] performance was so good, I would come back to see this show again, just for another opportunity to enjoy him in that role.” I’m in full agreement with her.
Ms. Andersen’s role as Catherine is at least as challenging and tricky. She is given the lesser songs – less upbeat, less energetic, a lot more whiny and self-flagellating. But she not only has to hold her own on the stage, against the Jamie character, it’s her responsibility to convey to the audience the appealing and endearing qualities that attracted Jamie to her in the first place – she cannot be a complete doormat, loser and shrew, or the whole thing falls apart. Though Ms. Andersen’s performance must pale in comparison to Mr. Monks, because the show is written that way, she was a delight in a role where that takes some real doing. Ms. Andersen was very effective in conveying her character’s acute unhappiness at the end of the relationship (i.e., towards the beginning of the play) and with her career disappointments. And as the play progressed, and she moved towards the beginning of the relationship, and a more optimistic outlook at a looming future career, she quite perceptibly warmed up, her performance becoming more relaxed, her singing more expressive, and her general demeanor, posture, facial expressions, and movements all successfully conveying a lighter, happier, more upbeat mood. Ms. Andersen offered a very entertaining, well sung and memorable rendition of a Chorus Line-like audition piece. Her performance of her final song, Goodbye Until Tomorrow was a great pleasure, a highlight that negated some of the sting of the ultimately unhappy ending of the marriage and of the show. Who walks out happy and smiling from a show that ends in a bitter divorce? Someone who has just seen and heard Ms. Andersen sing Goodbye Until Tomorrow!
On the one duet that Ms. Andersen and Mr. Monks perform together, in the middle of the show, The Next Ten Minutes, they were fantastic together. Their voices were well matched; Ms. Andersen seemed to raise the quality of her singing to match Mr. Monks extraordinary voicing. They were visibly very comfortable with each other, embracing, dancing, in a very believable enthrall that left the audience with the thought that the characters’ marriage might actually have made sense and held some prospect of working and enduring.
Though the actors by far carried the greatest burden in making this show a success, as already noted, all the stage craft in this production was excellent too. The lighting design was outstanding. As one character sings, the other remains on stage but at the periphery – in the shadows, and the lighting was perfect, highlighting the singing actor while still providing just enough light to permit the audience to observe the non-static behavior of the non-singing actor. There was a really effective bright spot illuminating the embracing and dancing couple in the mid-show duet, which had to do its magic despite the wedding projections at the back of the stage. And even the dual fadeout on both actors at the show’s conclusion was well done and very effective. Kudos for all that fine lighting go to Evan Carbone.
Speaking of projections, they were very well used in this production, to illustrate what was being sung, and assist the audience in comprehending and appreciating what was going on. As Jamie sang about a young Cathy, an apt photo of the woman he was attracted to was projected behind him. When they were in geographically different locations and communicating remotely, a photo of a computer Skype screen containing the image of one of them would be projected. When she is singing about going to meet parents, we’re seeing a projected image of him behind the wheel of a car. When he is singing about doing a book reading, dual posters announcing the reading are on display behind him. And then there are the very real looking images of the wedding, during the mid-show duet.
Set, costumes, miking of the two actors were all well done too. Then there were the musicians. As mentioned above, Jason Robert Brown provided lush arrangements for The Last Five Years, contrasting the music with the lyrics to create a wry irony. For that to work requires the contributions of some superior musicians. Camelot found and enlisted them too. John Taylor was the musical director and produced the orchestrations used in this production, as well as playing the keyboard parts during the performance. Beth Martin played the violin and Sue Flynn the cello. All three made invaluable contributions to the show’s songs, and each had several notable passages highlighting their instrument during the course of the show. All in all, it was a very enjoyable show, with pleasing music, very well delivered performances and great stage craft. Just don’t go expecting a happy ending!
Performances of The Last Five Years continue at Camelot Theatre, 101 Talent Avenue, Talent through October 4, Thursday thru Saturday 8:00pm, Sunday Matinees 2:00 pm. For tickets: order online at http://bit.ly/1EO71aR, or call the box office at 541-535-5250, or in person at 101 Talent Avenue, Talent, Oregon.