This much is certain: there is no formula for a great relationship.
Though it is easy to fixate on the “if we just fix (whatever it is), things will be better” mentality, the concert rendition of The Last Five Years by Jason Robert Brown that premiered last weekend on the CCRMA stage provided a heart-wrenching reminder of the fragility and unpredictability of romantic relationships.
The performance begins with a breakup. More specifically, it begins with a cello, which is almost the same thing. Cathy Hiatt (Sarah Jiang, ‘16) takes center stage to share what is perhaps most universal about the end of a relationship–no matter what lies were told, what anger exists, someone (in this case, Cathy) is hurting regardless. With only the immense talent of the orchestra creating the backdrop for Jiang’s opening ballad, she hints at the potential for deep character development and storytelling without costumes, props, or even other characters with her subtle but realistic facial and vocal expressions. The show continues in the form of alternating solos between Cathy and her husband Jamie, played by Andrew Forsyth, but in reverse chronological order–Forsyth’s first song starts with his wide eyed excitement at meeting his shiksa goddess.
Both Jiang and Forsyth become more nuanced throughout the show. Jiang’s heartbreak and clinging to hope are believable, but the audience understands more of who Cathy really is as she tells her story backwards–she is the support, the struggling actress who walks in the shadow of her successful novelist husband. Jiang’s acting abilities shine in “A Summer in Ohio,” when she deftly switches between embracing her summer touring with an ex-stripper roommate and a gay midget named Carl, and hating being in Ohio without cable, hot water, or Jamie. We understand Cathy’s need for Jamie as she goes to audition after audition without success. One of Cathy’s last songs (and chronologically first) reveals her quest to do better than her childhood friends, than her small town, than the past, and her fear of not doing better leads her to pour too much of herself into Jamie. Through many of her songs, Cathy expresses that her actions, happiness, and parts of herself are defined by her connection to Jamie. Even in the world of musicals, there is always someone who cares more, and consequently, someone who is more hurt. The more hope and determination Cathy showed, the more I cried.
Despite Cathy’s desire to hold on that manifests itself in bitterness, Jamie’s final song towards her is not angry. It is a wake up call for Cathy to take control of her own happiness and life. Jamie tells Cathy that he could never rescue her like she expected; he could only love her. But Jamie’s love comes at a cost. Before this final song, Jamie sings about love and new beginnings–to another woman. Forsyth’s singing in this song is the best it has been throughout the performance. He does an excellent job with character development through young, eager, in-love novelist, to confused husband resisting the temptation of other women, to frustrated man who is tired of validating his wife and being dragged into her insecurities.
Cathy is jealous and insecure. Jamie is selfish and unfaithful. Cathy is devoted and passionate. Jamie is supportive and eager. By the end of the show, we’ve completely let go of the categories of right and wrong. Cathy sings “goodbye (until tomorrow)”, while Jamie sings simply “goodbye.’
Jiang and Forsyth carry the tenderness and complexities of the story with their powerhouse vocals and incredible acting that tell a complete story on their own. Both get better as the show goes on, somehow overcoming the exhausting singing of Jason Robert Brown’s difficult melodies and the even more exhausting acting challenge of carrying monologue after monologue on their own.
The orchestra is, in some ways, the soul of the show. In the intimate concert setting, the individual talent of each musician shines under the musical direction of Joel Chapman. Alon Devorah takes on the momentary role of audition pianist during Cathy’s song “Climbing Uphill,” when he waves her along with a dry “Ok thanks honey!” naturally placed between his incredible renditions of Brown’s complicated, never-in-the-same-time-signature piano parts. Justin Cavazos also excels on guitar solos that add an unexpected depth to many songs. Brown is a composer known for his very particular style (listen to “The Schmuel Song” for an idea) and complex music, but this orchestra executes it perfectly.
When one character sings, the other sits on a tall chair on the side of the stage. At first, Cathy lived on house right and Jamie on house left, but after the middle song, they switched. This song, “The Next Ten Minutes,” is the only one where the two interact. Jamie proposes to Cathy by asking if she’ll spend the next ten minutes with him, and the next ten, and the next ten. Without knowing the outcome of the relationship, this would seem like a cute proposal gimmick, but it is hard to watch that his positivity about taking it one moment at a time will turn to asking, “Don’t we get to by happy, Cathy? At some point down the line, don’t we get to relax?” But during his proposal, Cathy and Jamie’s excitement over an unknown future that seems like it can only be positive destroys any emotional strength the audience may have still had.
The Last Five Years is a story of the realistic moments that make up a relationship. In some ways, it is a simple story, but it is one we all know, at least in part.
Photo credits: Harrison Truong
The Last Five Years: In Concert. 8 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday. Elliot Program Center. Tickets here.