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The Last Five Years, written and composed by Jason Robert Brown, tells the story of a five-year relationship in New York City entirely in songs. Jamie, one of the title characters, tells his story chronologically, and Catherine tells it in reverse.
Since the show is almost entirely sung, initially I’ll talk about the music. First and foremost, it’s complex and difficult both to play and to sing. Musical Director Kim Weems had done a terrific job, and her piano playing is just as terrific. She’s ably assisted by Steve Lester on guitar. Mackenzie Barman as Catherine and Brandon Patterson as Jamie both have very good voices and seem to be able to handle the sometimes complex rhythms and unusual vocal lines with ease. Unless you’re a musician, you won’t be aware of the difficulty of the music, which is as it should be.
As for the characters it seems to me that they’re both under-written lyrically and under-developed. Because of the show’s structure, Catherine begins with a painful and weepy song, “Still Hurting,” that unfortunately sets her up as rather self-pitying. Some of the lyrics even get lost in the emotion. As for Jamie, even in his first song, his ego that expands throughout the show comes through. I found that I kept writing “play the positive,” “find the humor,” and “work against the emotion.” In other words there’s not enough sub-text to make these characters three-dimensional. Without more complex characterizations, we don’t much care about and don’t much like either one of them. I think that’s a weakness in the material more than in the production.
That said, some of the songs, especially the humorous ones, work very well. Catherine’s “Summer in Ohio” is great fun and Miss Barman does a hilarious job with “Climbing Uphill.” Jamie’s “Schmuel Song” is fun and Mr. Patterson has found all the humor in “A Miracle Would Happen.” Their duet, “The Next Ten Minutes,” is the heart of the show and of the relationship. It’s well sung and acted; we believe it.
Kent Streed’s simple set of a platform, two or three boxes and sheer curtains works very well. The musicians are visible in shadow upstage behind a scrim. His costumes are good, especially for the wedding. The exception is Miss Barmen’s black shirt-dress with its unflatteringly short hem. Bonnie B. Brewer has done a sensitive job with the lighting.
Director Laura-Jean Schwartau-Swanson has done a nice job of staging the piece and I like the way the ring ties the end to the beginning. However, in the final song there’s an awkward moment when Catherine backs up on the platform. Not only awkward, it looks dangerous. The theatre is small enough that she could be heard if she briefly turned upstage.
At 90 minutes with no intermission, The Last Five Years has lots of good singing and interesting music and is a pleasant way to spend a summer evening. On a scale of one to five, the Pendragon Theatre production of The Last Five Years gets four pine trees.