At it’s core, it is a simple love story gone wrong. Boy meets Girl, they fall in love, they marry, and eventually they get divorced – all in the span of five years. For both of us, The Last 5 Years by Jason Robert Brown is a show that has stuck with us both since the first time we heard/saw it. Brown, who is responsible for shows like Songs for a New World, Parade, and 13, wrote the music, lyrics, and book for this one-act musical which premiered in Chicago back in 2001 before moving to Off-Broadway in 2002. And for this weekend only, you will get a chance to see this amazing show presented by Gravity Defied Theatre.
When the show originally opened off-Broadway it starred Norbert Leo Butz as Jamie and ultimately co-starred Sherie Renee Scott as Cathy. For the purposes of the upcoming local production, Jamie will be played by Chris Trimboli and Jessica Carter-Ramsey will be bringing Cathy to life. These two have been pretty active in the theatre scene since sharing the same musical theatre class at UNC. Trimboli was most recently seen as Chip in Town Hall’s production of …Spelling Bee while Ramsey was recently in Oliver at Candlelight. Behind the scenes, Benji Schirm has taken the reigns of this production as Director and Midge McMoyer Smith is in place as Musical Director/Accompanist. Both worked in those same roles for Gravity Defied’s recent production of the regional premiere of [title of show] (see our critique).
In spite of being a simple recognizable story, what takes this show past any other boy meets girl story line or a relationship drama is the way author Jason Robert Brown chose to play with the chronology of the show. You see, Jamie’s story is told from the beginning through to the end of the relationship while Cathy’s is told from the end of the relationship backwards to the beginning. So from the start, we know it’s doomed but what makes the piece powerful is not the destination but the journey. Right after the show opens with Cathy’s number “Still Hurting” who is mourning the loss of her love, we then immediately hear Jamie sing about how thrilled he is about the woman he has just met. We bounce back and forth like this until they eventually meet in the middle for a brief moment, at their wedding, only to continue past each other. There are running lines throughout the piece and recurring musical themes which in their own context take on a whole new meaning.
Having seen this show a number of times, there are many challenges a production must overcome to see this show come to fully to life, the first of which is casting. We have never really seen a production (together or separate) where we believed the couple would have been together at all. However, this time around Trimboli and Carter-Ramsey have a nice chemistry on stage that helps calm those issues. Another challenge is the incredibly difficult musical material. Jason Robert Brown’s songs are notoriously some of the hardest to sing and play in all of musical theatre, requiring a wide range and a ton of stamina to get through each length complicated song. In fact, the old adage “Don’t sing Sondheim at an audition,” has been modernized to, “Don’t sing Jason Robert Brown at an audition,” due to its complexity. And on top of that, the show requires deeply connected acting performances – there is no cheesy “musical theatre acting” allowed. In this case, both performers are incredible vocal talents and Schirm is working with them intensely to bring out each intricate acting beat.
Schirm is definitely adding his own touches and interpretations to the show, some of which we have never seen or heard of before. Nothing extreme, of course, as the show demands simplicity for the sake of the story. The set pieces consist of a few trunks, some papers, a few photos, and some hanging fabric. Through the telling of the story these trunk turn into various locations and, with a little imagination, it does so seamlessly.
What is most important, however, is that the audience goes along on both journeys — they’re simultaneously moving backward with Cathy and forward with Jamie — and lamenting how seldom the two are in the same place at the same time. What keeps the audience invested is the strong identification with the characters. In its best form, the piece manages to get the audience on the sides of both characters at different points in time. And Trimboli and Carter-Ramsey really bring their best assets to the production in this sense – simply put, they’re both likeable. We know that they will bring their incredible talent to this stunning piece of musical theatre and create an evening that no one will soon forget.