BWW Review: THE LAST 5 YEARS at EAGLE THEATRE is a Show You Should Make the TIME to See
This weekend, Eagle Theatre in Hammonton, NJ opened the doors for its production of Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years.
The Last 5 Years is an emotionally powerful and intimate musical about a man and a woman who fall in and out of love over the course of five years. The musical's unconventional structure consists of an aspiring actress Cathy Hiatt (played by Jenna Pastuszek) telling her story backwards, while budding novelist Jamie Wellerstein (played by Max Meyers) tells his story chronologically; the two characters only meet once, at their wedding in the middle of the show.
Jason Robert Brown's writing is brilliant: his story is relatable; his characters are personable; and his music is witty, funny and heart-wrenching. The structure of the play (having Cathy telling the story in reverse and having Jamie tell it chronologically) is unique and imaginative.
Eagle Theatre's production design for The Last 5 Years is simple, but smart. The Eagle's Innovations Factory has created a Lazy-Susan type turntable which the actors ride to make their entrances and exits. On either side of the turntable are podiums, and above the set is a panoramic screen that shows different video projections throughout the show. And since the musical has such a strong theme of time and how time moves, many of the videos projected onto the screen feature clocks.
In the Eagle's production, there are very minimal props and set pieces. As an audience, you are only ever seeing one half of the story at a time. You either see it from Jamie or Cathy's perspective and you either see the first half of last half. So, some of The Eagle's set pieces are half-half of an airplane seat or half of a bed-showing that it is only half of the story. Corsi also chose to modernize the production a little by using the video backgrounds and some contemporary props (like using cell phones and an airplane instead of hand-written letters and a car in the traditional staging).
Dramaturgically, I love the idea of the Innovations Factory's turntable. It nicely reflects the circular nature of the play and adds momentum, highlighting the theme of time always moving. Jason Robert Brown's script and music has a very circular structure. The music repeats several iconic ditties and even lyrics that take on different contexts throughout the show.
The way Producing Director of The Eagle and Director of The Last 5 Years, Ed Corsi, utilizes the turntable in his blocking highlights the separation of Cathy and Jamie. Pastuszek and Meyers are always on opposite sides of the stage and only ever make physical contact during Jamie's proposal to Cathy, and during their wedding in the song "The Next Ten Minutes".
Eagle Theatre's simplistic production is a smart choice. The Last 5 Years is not a dog and pony show. Rather, Corsi puts the focus on the authenticity and relatability of the relationship between Jamie and Cathy. The Eagle's production feels intimate and perhaps more importantly, authentic. The main focus is on Pastuszek and Meyer: their acting and their singing. The Last 5 Years is an almost operatic musical. There are not many lines of dialogue as Jamie and Cathy almost never directly interact, so the story is told primarily through song.
Something that I find so special about Jason Robert Brown's writing in The Last 5 Years is that the characters are so well developed. They are not two-dimensional caricatures of two people who fall in love such as are common in traditionally commercial musical theatre. Instead, Jason Robert Brown gives both Cathy and Jamie full stories and he shows how both parties contributed to the end of the relationship. It is a realistic portrayal of a relationship and Pastuszek and Meyers as Cathy and Jamie are personable, adorable, and endearing.
Jason Robert Brown's musical is an emotional story, but there is a constant balance of drama with comedy in his writing. Because of the structure he chose (to have Cathy tell the story backwards while Jamie tells it chronologically) most of the songs in the musical alternate with a cheerful, cheeky song then a beautiful ballad.
I love the more upbeat songs in the score, and one of my favorite moments in the musical is when Meyer as Jamie sings "The Schmuel Song". "The Schmuel Song" is a story Jamie writes for Cathy at Christmas time about an elderly tailor from Klimovich whose clock tells him that he could turn back time as he sews. Jamie presents to Cathy a watch telling her how he will support her following her dreams. My favorite part about Meyer's performance of this song is his little dance during the "Na na na na's" which is charming and comedic.
I also love Pastuszek's rendition of Cathy's ranting song "Climbing Uphill" about the torturous audition process in New York City. It is a very meta-theatrical moment since you know that the actress onstage has herself had to audition to be in the very play you are watching. Pastuszek delivers the song hilariously and it is a nice light-hearted moment in an emotionally heavy musical.
Both Meyers and Pastuszek perform all of the music in the show amazingly and I was very impressed with Jason Neri's Music Directing.
Eagle Theatre's The Last 5 Years is a show you will want to make the time to see. Jenna Pastuszek and Max Meyers are perfectly cast, having a dynamic relationship and beautiful voices that bring Cathy and Jamie to life. The production design is functional and inventive, and Jason Robert Brown's music is exciting and catchy. You are sure to be humming as you exit the theatre.
The Last Five Years is running through July 1st at Eagle Theatre in Hammonton, NJ. For more information about the show and to purchase tickets, please visit http://www.eagletheatre.org/
* Photos from Eagle Theatre's Facebook