This thrillingly-sung new version of Jason Robert Brown’s beloved (and problematic) musical about love lost (and gained) almost feels like a laboratory experiment in pandemic theater. Will theatergoers pay $32.50 to $47.50 for a limited online showing of an 80-minute video, when the 2014 film adaptation, starring Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick, is currently available to subscribers of BroadwayHD and to anybody (for free) on YouTube?
The answer apparently is yes. After a two-week run in March, the Out of the Box Theatrics’ production of “The Last 5 Years” was nominated for a 2021 Drama League Award, and will now get an encore run online from April 13-25.
The musical tells the story of the five-year relationship of a young New York couple, but with a twist reminiscent of “Merrily We Roll Along,” and just a hint of “A Star Is Born.” Over the five years, we see Jamie fall in love with Cathy, become a successful novelist, and break up with Cathy, while Cathy’s story is told in reverse; we see her first forlorn the breakup with Jamie and watch while she complains about their relationship and struggles unsuccessfully to make it as an actress, then works her way back to the first blush of love with Jamie. The two characters alternate songs, all of them solos except for a duet in the middle, “The Next Ten Minutes,” during which they get married.
Celebrating its 20th anniversary, Brown’s musical has become a staple of regional theater and developed a cult-like following. I could not count myself part of the cult. Thematically, there is an aptness to the structure that’s downright clever — the couple is evidently not in synch from the get-go – but the particular ways it plays out can feel stagey, unclear or false, requiring a suspension of disbelief I have been unwilling or unable to make. When I saw the Off-Broadway revival in 2013, I wasn’t as much confused by the musical as baffled by the theatergoers around me bursting into tears.
Nicholas Edwards and Nasia Thomas go a long way towards showing me the light. As Jamie and Cathy, they don’t just carry the new production; their crystalline, versatile voices make it soar. At the same time, their performances provide something close to ballast. On paper, Jamie is, let’s face it, a bit of a jerk. He seems most taken with Cathy because, at long last, he’s found someone to date who is not Jewish (as he makes clear in a lively, funny and in-your-face song, “Shiksa Goddess’) From the start, he’s more concerned with his career than their life together (“I found a woman I love/And I found an agent who loves me,” he exults); and it’s this self-centered ambition that leads to their breakup (“I will not fail so you can be comfortable, Cathy/I will not lose because you can’t win.”) Yet as Jamie, Edwards seems so palpably a human being, with such a warm smile, and so genuine about his enthusiasms, that you can see what attracted Cathy to him.
We first meet Jamie when he’s launching a winning streak. We first meet Cathy when she’s on a whining streak. Yet, again, Thomas suggests an inner life and inner light that allows Cathy a breadth of character that the role doesn’t automatically convey.
Director and musical director Jason Michael Webb has set “The Last 5 Years” in a New York City apartment, which allows for a seamless flow of scenes, but doesn’t solve the structural problem, and has a potential weirdness all its own. The six members of the band are playing in full sight while standing in the kitchen, or sitting on the bed, or even leaning against the bathroom wall, as if at a kind of creepy round-the-clock party. Each of the two characters’ solos are sometimes sung with their (mute) partner right next to them, music-video style – which less often mitigates Brown’s high concept than muddles it.
Both performers are African-American, which casts a different light on Jamie’s extensive references to his Jewishness.
But if Jamie and Cathy are not in sync, this band is, gloriously (making the most of Brown’s terrific, varied pop score); Brian Bon’s videography has such beautiful, subtle touches; production designer Adam Honoré creates such a believably lived-in apartment and Siena Zoë Allan such spot-on costumes, above all, the performances are so rooted and so exuberant…that somehow this time around, I am willing to suspend my disbelief (at least more so than before); I bask in this musical as if seeing and hearing it for the first time.
The Last 5 Years
Out of the Box Theatrics, April 13-25
Book, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Directed and music directed by Jason Michael Webb.
Cast: Nasia Thomas and Nicholas Edwards
Associate director: Christina Franklin
Associate music director/keyboard: Cynthia Meng
Costume designer: Siena Zoë Allan
Production designer: Adam Honoré
Dp/videographer: Brian Bon
Producing consultant: Blair Russell
Producer/ film advisor/compliance officer: Joanna White-Oldham
Running time: 80 minutes
Tickets: $32.50 to $47.50