“The Last Five Years” at MJTC, An Emotional Rollercoaster

last five yearsSaturday night I had the pleasure of seeing Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years, a show I have dreamt of seeing for at least a decade. I’d long ago memorized the songs, and during the last few weeks I have been fantasizing about how seeing the songs performed live would bring them further to life. My biggest concern was that I wasn’t going to be able to resist jumping out of my seat to belt out my favorite parts, which would be entirely inappropriate for any show, but particularly one with only two cast members.

This “winter weekend production” of the show, put on by the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, is playing through March 2nd at the intimate Hillcrest Center Theater. The Last Five Years is a show that doesn’t require much in the way of props or elaborate set design. What it may require is a little background knowledge before attending as there was no real introduction, hints or synopsis in the playbill. For those of you unfamiliar with The Last Five Years, it is about a five-year relationship between a Jewish man and a non-Jewish woman. Pay close attention to how time is used in the show, and see if you can catch on to the twist before the show is over.

The show is a reflection of Brown’s actual five-year relationship with his ex-wife, which is likely what makes the combination of music and lyrics so evocative and touching. There were definitely some audience members nodding along in agreement during some of the songs as their mirror neurons fired up with empathy. Brown so accurately based this score on his experiences that his ex-wife brought a lawsuit against the show because it was too close to their failed relationship.

Attributable to the size of this particular production and theater, there were no microphones used to overpower the band. (The elderly couple sitting next to me complained about only being able to hear Jamie’s lyrics due to the pitches that their hearing aids picked up.) The wife of the gentleman seated next to me noted that the music wasn’t what she was looking for in musical theater and felt it was geared toward a younger audience. That shocked me because I always thought of it as a show that was relatable to a wide range of ages, but as Jamie is 23 when their relationship begins, this show is eminently relatable to a younger audience. It has been suggested that this play is suitable for anyone who has been in any kind of relationship. It’s not suitable for all ages, however, as there is some explicit language used.

The vocalists, Sarah Shervey as Cathy and Matt Rein as Jamie, did remarkably well for a show with virtually constant singing and no intermission or chorus line. Trying to overpower the backing instruments without an opportunity to rest the vocal chords would be a difficult and painful task as it is, but they have multiple performances on Sundays. Both actors brought the audience to laughs at times. The crowd seemed to particularly enjoy the Jewish jokes that are cleverly interwoven into Brown’s lyrics. The songs “Shiksa Goddess,” “The Schmuel Song,” and “A Summer in Ohio,” seemed to be especially enjoyed.

What really impressed me was Shervey’s outstanding portrayal of Cathy. I’ll admit, I had been more looking forward to hearing Jamie’s numbers than Cathy’s, as I’ve often skipped over her songs on the Off-Broadway cast recording that I have. I’ve become so accustomed to the strong yet smooth vocal talents of Norbert Leo Butz and the strained, nasally, but still talented Sherie Rene Scott that I was expecting a much steadier and confident representation of Jamie. Unfair, yes, but true nonetheless. Shervey pleasantly surprised me. I found myself looking forward to each of her pieces as the show went on. Not only was Shervey’s voice a pleasure to listen to, but the way she acted the role brought further humor and life to each scene, which made the show worth seeing. By contrast, perhaps due to opening night jitters, Rein seemed somewhat less comfortable on stage, and while he clearly has a great voice, his songs felt anticlimactic to me at times. I first thought it was his portrayal of the character, a young writer not yet confident he will succeed, but his portrayal was fairly consistent throughout, even after Jamie gains success. He breathed the most life and emotion into “If I Didn’t Believe in You,” perhaps because the song itself exudes quite a bit of confidence and sentiment. If you have never heard the soundtrack and decide to see this show, and you should, you will very likely be equally impressed with both performances.

Interestingly, because of the personality that Rein brings to the character of Jamie, it felt more stereotypically Jewish than the recording I’m used to, which may have made it more realistic. Each of the performers have vocal and acting experience and talent, though I’m not sure how much on stage chemistry they have together. However, it can be hard to tell in this show as the characters barely interact. Their songs are mostly in the form of dialogues, but we only really hear their half of the conversation while the other half is often implied. But if you’re paying attention, the score usually gives us the other half later in the show.

What’s truly wonderful about Brown’s compositions and lyrics is how the songs take the audience on unexpected turns; they’ll start heading in one direction and often end up in a very different place—leaving the viewer with a very different emotion. Because of this, plus the way the two characters travel through the story, the musical can be somewhat of an emotional rollercoaster. It’s really a very complex and noteworthy depiction of relationships and aspects of the human condition. I highly recommend seeing the show, especially while it’s here in the Twin Cities.

For more information and tickets for The Last Five Years, click here.