When talking about musical theater, one might think of big group numbers, dramatic lighting and extravagant costuming, all set in a decorative 2,000-seat auditorium. Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years, however, redefines those expectations by utilizing the only two things you need to tell a great love story: two people.
From its intricate narrative configuration to Brown’s notoriously complex melodies, The Last Five Years is a unique and challenging show to produce. But that didn’t stop the newly formed K Boulé Pictures from brilliantly tackling a production that has become a cult classic since its 2001 Chicago debut.
The Last Five Years tells the story of a marriage between Jewish novelist Jamie Wellerstein (Juan Lozano) and girl-next-door theater actress Cathy Hiatt (Kate Bowman). Though his career as an exuberant young writer is skyrocketing, hers isn’t quite matching up as she struggles to land even the most unpleasant acting jobs.
The musical’s unique qualities stem from the way the show plays with the concept of time. In the beginning, Cathy mourns the loss of her five-year relationship with Jamie, while Jamie can’t contain his excitement coming off his first date with Cathy. From that point, he moves forward in time while she recedes backwards. It’s rare to see the two actors actually share the stage —in fact, they only experience the same moment at the same time when their storylines intersect on their wedding day.
Though the musical traditionally only employs two players, director Kristen Boulé decides to bring a fresh dimension to her version by adding shadow dancers (Daniel Johnson and Macy Reyes) to act as the memories of Jamie and Cathy. Dancing on a platform raised behind a canopy above the stage, the silhouettes of the performers allow the main actors to unite with their shadows from the stage. This creative decision proves to be a fruitful one, as it allows viewers to sense a genuine interaction and fills an otherwise empty space on the stage.
Because of the show’s complicated storytelling arrangement, the actors run into difficulties when tasked with portraying contrasting emotional situations during the first two scenes. To begin, we see Cathy alone in her room, sobbing during the poignant “Still Hurting.” Immediately following, Jamie explodes onto the stage with the playful “Shiksa Goddess,” a witty tune about how he sees himself falling in love with Cathy, despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that she is a gentile. While the audience appreciates that both actors have to jump feet first into such extreme mental states, it comes across as somewhat contrived, and their voices and acting styles feel a bit forced.
Both actors, however, quickly regain their footing with their subsequent numbers. Bowman’s performance during “See I’m Smiling” feels raw and heartbreaking as she tries to hold onto what’s left of her crumbling marriage. For Lozano, his shining moment comes with the often overlooked “Schmuel Song,” in which he tells Cathy a charming Jewish folktale during Christmastime to explain to her that time is on her side to make her dreams come true. Using his whole body to tell the story, Lozano’s performance in this scene is wonderfully endearing, especially at the end of the song when he asks, “Have I mentioned today how lucky I am to be in love with you?”
Another standout moment for Bowman comes during “Climbing Uphill,” when she vents about the labors of finding a decent acting job. The number serves as a needed moment of comic relief as she hilariously comments through her disastrous audition. The scene perfectly matches Bowman’s sensibilities as an actor and allows us to peek even further into Cathy’s psyche. (“I will not be the girl who requires a man to get by,” she exclaims.) Bowman shines in this scene, giving the audience the biggest laugh of the night with her impeccable timing and admirable honesty.
Like “Climbing Uphill,” Lozano’s most powerful and important section of the show comes during the visceral “If I Didn’t Believe in You.” Not only is this song an imperative turning point for Jamie and his frustration with Cathy and her lack of self-confidence, it’s also one of the most heartbreaking parts of the entire show. It’s understandably a tough scene to pull off considering he has to have an argument with someone who isn’t physically there. Still, Lozano scores with this song, as we can feel his frustration: “I will not lose because you can’t win.”
With subjects like love found and love lost, career decisions, jealously and infidelity demonstratively explored throughout The Last Five Years, it’s a musical that college students particularly can relate to and enjoy. It’s also a show that provokes endless conversations after its viewing, as both character’s stories are so nuanced and can be left up to interpretation thanks to Bowman and Lozano’s acting chops and Boulé’s expert directing.
The Last Five Years shows Thursday-Sunday at 8 p.m. through Oct. 6 at the Hudson Guild Theatre, located at 6539 Santa Monica Blvd.