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BWW Review: THE LAST FIVE YEARS at Theatre Tulsa

A modern classic makes the transition from stage to screen

If Theatre Tulsa weren't already a wellspring of stellar live performances, I would consider encouraging them to go into the movie business.

Their streaming production of The Last Five Years, which ran for just one weekend, surprised me by taking a confidently cinematic approach to this modern classic. I had been expecting some flourishes beyond simply a filmed stage production, but definitely nothing like this: carefully selected locations across NYC, creative shots that perfectly accented the score, and quick cuts that kept me on the edge of my seat. While I tried to focus on the gorgeous music and transfixing performances, I kept getting distracted with the same thought - how on earth did Theatre Tulsa manage to pull off this caliber of film adaptation of a beloved musical during a pandemic?

The Last Five Years is a 2-person show that explores the doomed love between Cathy and Jamie, an actress and writer pursuing their careers in New York City. Their story is told through alternating solos from each performer, and the gimmick (and built-in spoiler) is that Jamie's songs are presented in chronological order while we get to see Cathy's account in reverse. Cathy and Jamie never explicitly share the stage except for when they meet in the middle for their wedding. The show begins with Cathy's heartache and Jamie's elation, and it ends with Jamie's anguish and Cathy's unbridled optimism and hope. This is just as devastating as it sounds: The Last Five Years might not be the ideal selection for a date night if you don't want the evening to end in tears.

The music, lyrics, and book are written by Jason Robert Brown, who based the story on his own divorce - so closely, in fact, that his ex-wife filed a lawsuit. In what is perhaps the most heart-wrenching twist of all, Brown depicts Jamie (his own onstage avatar) as immature, narcissistic, and reckless and gives Cathy the lion's share of the wit and integrity. Both are complex, vulnerable characters whose performance requires not just serious vocal chops but also emotional range.

The stars of Theatre Tulsa's The Last Five Years are up for the challenge of tackling the soaring highs and calamitous lows of Jamie and Cathy's relationship, and they even manage to do it in closeup. The inherent intimacy of film can be tricky to mesh with the big, bold energy of breaking into song, but somehow, this production makes it work. In fact, I found myself cringing more frequently at the characters' questionable behavior than at the awkwardness of busting out a big musical number in a tiny apartment kitchen. Of course, singing onscreen can easily feel a bit clumsy - but to its credit, this production committed to the story and leaned in without apology.

Brenna Caldwell's Cathy was joyful and intense, and she brought passion to every note and shot. Tristan Lesso was a great fit as Jamie, tackling each scene with charm, a sense of fun, and a remarkable vocal performance. Highlights included Caldwell's brilliantly bittersweet "I'm a Part of That" and the anguished but spot-on vocals in Lesso's rendition of "A Miracle Would Happen."

As impressive as the core performances were, what really blew me away about this production was the exceptional videography and editing by A.C. "Ace" McCarthy. Some of the sequences truly put the 2014 film adaptation with Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan to shame. From the choice to frame the story within Jamie's book to the FaceTime setting for "If I Couldn't Believe in You," the production was brimming with thoughtful and creative choices that surprised and dazzled me at every turn. What shone through most was a love of the material and a willingness to take risks and have fun. The result was a total joy to watch.

I dearly miss live theatre and hope that Theatre Tulsa gets to go back to their usual season of in-person performances soon. Still, it would be a terrible shame if the lifting of pandemic restrictions prevented them from creating another film adaptation of a musical, because I can't wait to see what they come up with next.

For more info about Theatre Tulsa's upcoming shows and programs, you can visit theatretulsa.org, call 918-587-8402, or email info@theatretulsa.org.


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From This Author Dara Homer