Review: Jason Robert Brown's THE LAST 5 YEARS at the Richey Suncoast Theatre

The production runs through September 24th.

By: Sep. 16, 2023
Review: Jason Robert Brown's THE LAST 5 YEARS at the Richey Suncoast Theatre

“A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.” --Jean-Luc Godard

There is no current Broadway artist who proudly carries the Stephen Sondheim torch better and brighter than Jason Robert Brown. He has it all to fill the huge gap left by Mr. Sondheim’s passing nearly two years ago: Clever lyrics where the listener (mostly) can’t quite predict where a rhyme is going; incredible motifs and gamesmanship with the music; and the ability to taste mainstream success but still remain somewhat of a cult favorite. And like Mr. Sondheim, composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown has created quite an impressive oeuvre that his fans hold so near and dear to their hearts, works that they treat almost like members of their own families: the stellar Parade, Songs for a New World, Urban Cowboy, Honeymoon in Vegas, Mr. Saturday Night, The Bridges of Madison County and the underrated, catchy and charming 13: The Musical (I’m referring to the whip-smart original Broadway production, not the tepid Netflix movie that zapped the ribald soul out of the show).  For many, his masterpiece remains THE LAST 5 YEARS. (Don't worry, all votes for Parade and Songs for a New World will be counted, and I will never dismiss 13.)

I had the honor of attending the Richey Suncoast Production of this intelligent and heartfelt show, performed to a small but attentive audience, and I sat in awe at what Mr. Brown has created, brought to life by the two very talented performers, Lindsay MacConnell and Tristan Horta. It runs thru September 24th.

THE LAST 5 YEARS follows the 1,825 days in the relationship of aspiring actress Cathy Hiatt and novelist Jamie Wellerstein, from the joys of courtship to the sad end of their marriage.  What sets this two-person show apart is its structure: We follow Cathy, from leaving her failed marriage and then going step by step back in time to when she first dated Jamie, and Jamie, from his first dating Cathy and then pushing forward to their failed marriage.  Two characters in two time periods, moving in opposite directions and only interacting onstage on their wedding day.  It sounds more complicated than it is, and it’s certainly a wink to Mr. Sondheim’s backwards masterwork, Merrily We Roll Along.  (Call this Not-So-Merrily We Roll Along.) Structurally, it’s not unlike the back-and-forth nature of The Godfather Part 2, where we follow the rise of Don Vito Corleone in a sort of golden past while, at the same time, we also witness the cold-heartedness and moral decline of his son, Michael, that takes place decades later. 

What sets THE LAST 5 YEARS apart from the Sondheim Meta-Verse is its autobiographical nature.  (Though, to be fair, Sondheim’s closest moments to autobiography arrive in “Opening Doors” from, yes, Merrily We Roll Along.)  With Jason Robert Brown’s show, it mirrors the dissolution of his own real-life marriage to Theresa O’Neill, so much so that she sued him and he, in turn, sued her over this show.  But who cares who sued whom; what remains is a vital, profound, tear-up-your-soul piece of work chock full of memorable songs.  It’s what most musicals strive to do: 1. To entertain; 2. to hold up a mirror to our own lives, our follies and foibles, our joys and our pains; or 3. to hopefully accomplish both.  THE LAST 5 YEARS certainly accomplishes both.

THE LAST 5 YEARS is like a jaded I Do! I Do! for the 21st Century.  You might as well call it I Do! I Don’t!  I don’t recall a show that runs this quickly--sort of a musical swish pan--but without seeming rushed.  It’s a brisk ninety minutes, but you feel like you inhaled a full meal afterwards.  Credit must go to the two uber-talented cast members and to the sharp direction by Jessica Moraton. 

The show’s arch is amazing, how it paints these characters and how we alter our view of them wherever they land in their relationship timeline.

Lindsay MacConnell is astounding as Cathy.  We change our opinions of her as the show progresses, or in her case, rewinds.  We first meet her as she packs up and leaves her husband; there’s a real sense of defeat right at the starting gates.  She comes across almost a Debbie Downer in these early moments, but it works well, because as the timeline moves in reverse, she grows more and more joyful, more and more idealistic.  And Ms. MacConnell’s voice is in top shape, her acting glorious, always in the moment (wherever that moment lands).  And we like her at the end, almost feel protective of her, rooting for her, wishing time could stand still for her. We don’t want her optimism, her joyous “this love will last forever” feelings to end.  But as we saw in the early stages of the show, life is not that kind.

Tristan Horta as Jamie starts off so wonderfully vibrant, idealistic, walking on air, in complete contrast to Ms. MacConnell’s Cathy.  His first song, “Shiksa Goddess,” really showcases this bubbly exuberance.  How can you prevent your heart from melting for both Jamie and Cathy when, in the showstopping “Schmuel Song,” he sings, “Have I mentioned today how lucky I am to be in love with you?” He’s on top of the world, with his novel being published and finding what will certainly be the love of his life. 

As Jamie’s storyline progresses, we see him change, growing darker until he turns into a sort of Dickie Downer.  After his picture-perfect wedding, Jamie feels chained in married life.  He feels that women are on the prowl for him, especially since he’s a published novelist, and he ultimately betrays his wedding vows.  And Mr. Horta really dives into the role, bringing it depth and pain, especially in his song “Nobody Needs to Know.”  His vocals are quite strong, and in the course of the musical, we feel deflated as we witness the reality of defeat setting in, the snuffing of that exuberance that started the show. 

Both Ms. MacConnell and Mr. Horta own the stage, never interacting until one key moment, and they sing more than most other main characters in any musical that I can think of (they barely have time to rest).  Musical Director Jennifer Deckleman gets the most out of these two, both of whom are in top form.

The technical aspects of this production work fine enough.  Sound isn’t an issue, which is a good thing.  Impressive costume changes are furiously fast.  Now, the Richey Suncoast Theatre has also never been known for having strong sets, and that’s certainly the case here.  “No-frills” is the description that comes to mind, but in a two-person show this intimate, that’s scarcely a problem. 

After the show, the ending image of Cathy and Jamie, in two different states of emotions and in two different time periods, stayed with me.  A snapshot of the before and the after. THE LAST  5 YEARS culminates with the lovely "Goodbye Until Tomorrow" (Cathy's song after the first date with Jamie, a man she realizes may be the love of her life) and "I Could Never Rescue You" (Jamie's lamentation over their failed marriage). Both say goodbye in a different way--she's filled with optimism in seeing him the next day, and he's saddened by a relationship that they just couldn't fix. It's exquisitely rendered, the show's final moment of power, simultaneously filled with hope and heartbreak, love and sorrow, dreams of a future, and the reality of defeat. Several years ago, when I created a list of the 101 greatest show tunes in a Broadway World article, this was my choice for #101…the perfect note to end a show (and a list).

In the final moments of THE LAST 5 YEARS, Mr. Brown has created something that maybe only Stephen Sondheim touched on in his “Our Time” from Merrily We Roll Along. Idealism and despair meet head-on.  It made me feel sorry for these characters (what they unknowingly will endure) and yet realize that they are all of us.  That’s me up there.  And you. Mr. Sondheim may have passed, and we still have Here We Are to look forward to, but I see that, at 53, Jason Robert Brown is the man destined to carry on that grand tradition.  At 53, Stephen Sondheim still had not yet created Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Assassins, or Passion; with that in mind, Mr. Brown has a lot of great work ahead of him.  In the meantime, to witness his genius, his heart, and his clear-eyed view of heartbreak in full swing, don’t miss THE LAST 5 YEARS at Richey Suncoast Theatre.

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