The Last 5 Years

Sally Wilfert in The Last 5 Years(Photo © Lanny Nagler)
Sally Wilfert in The Last 5 Years
(Photo © Lanny Nagler)

Jason Robert Brown’s Off-Broadway musical The Last 5 Years, which won him Drama Desk awards for Best Music and Best Lyrics in 2002, has taken up temporary residence in Hartford at a gem of a theater that many people are now discovering as the place to see great shows. TheaterWorks may have been “found out,” but it’s still small and intimate and is still presenting fabulous works to Connecticut audiences. The Last 5 Years is its latest success.

Told almost entirely in song, this 90-minute, intermissionless story is moved along seamlessly from scene to scene by Jamie (Joe Cassidy) and Cathy (Sally Wilfert), who tell of their five-year relationship/marriage in alternating sequences. Putting a spin on the old “he said/she said” story, Brown has Jamie tell us the story in chronological order while Cathy starts at the end and works her way back to the day she met Jamie. In only one scene do their stories overlap: the scene of their marriage. The audience knows how it will all end thanks to Cathy, and they know how it started thanks to Jamie. What’s left is to fill in the rest and find out why, when, and how.

With its fascinating forward/backward construction presenting the story both ways simultaneously, The Last 5 Years has the potential to confuse audiences. Does it? Absolutely not! Thanks to Rob Ruggiero’s direction, the wonderful clarity of Brown’s poignant story songs, and the wardrobe and scenic designs of Luke Hegel-Cantarella, Jamie and Cathy’s relationship folds and unfolds with ease. Beautifully rendered here, their story is told sometimes with great humor, sometimes with sadness, but always with truth, clarity, and sincerity. As the sounds of an invisible, five-piece band flow into each scene, Jamie and Cathy make us laugh while often breaking our hearts.

Joe Cassidy in The Last 5 Years(Photo © Lanny Nagler)
Joe Cassidy in The Last 5 Years
(Photo © Lanny Nagler)

As Jamie, Joe Cassidy (who has been on Broadway in Les Misérables) exhibits startling stage presence and a tremendous voice. Sally Wilfert tends to chew up the scenery (sparse as it may be) as Cathy, but her voice is first rate; perhaps it is her character that left me wanting just a bit more, for Jamie is a winner in his career with a best-selling book while Cathy is a struggling singer/actress. Yet it’s tough to be entirely in either character’s corner during this fast-paced piece; both players are right and wrong, and we don’t have time to take sides.

Jason Robert Brown, the composer-lyricist-librettist of this magnificently complex yet simple show, pulls no punches and really lets the story fly. Brown won a Tony Award for Parade; it’s wonderful that he now has another top-notch musical theater piece under his belt and a great future ahead of him.

Congratulations to TheaterWorks’ executive and artistic director Steve Campo and to director Ruggiero for grabbing this magnificent jewel and transporting it from Greenwich Village to Hartford. It was standing room only at the performance I attended, and I’m sure every night will be the same.

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The Last Five Years

Closed: May 25, 2003