Any review of the Last Five Years needs no spoiler alert: the musical's ending is revealed within the first minute of the show. As the lights come up on a bare-bones stage, a lone blonde forlornly surveys the scene, voice breaking with emotion at the opening line of the production's first song: "Jamie is over and Jamie is gone." Make no mistake: Jason Robert Brown's cult-favorite musical is a New York love story without a happy ending, but that's what makes it such a satisfying show.
Whether you've been a major fan of the show since Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie René Scott serenaded audiences in 2002 or you've never once heard anyone sing the word "limbovitch," Portland Center Stage and director Nancy Keystone's production of the Last Five Years is an entertaining meditation on the beginning and end of love. Here's why:
The Last Five Years
Portland Center Stage
Thru June 22
For Newbies: The heart of L5Y is its time-traveling twist on the standard boy-meets-girl trope. The two-person cast reconstructs the tale of their doomed mid-twenties love from opposing perspectives, with young Jewish novelist Jamie (Drew Harper) beginning at the couple's first date and moving forward in time, and struggling actress Cathy (Merideth Kaye Clark) working backward from the end of their marriage five years later. Through alternating songs, the audience is taken on an eclectic tour through musical styles, emotions, and life moments—including career ups and downs, holidays, weddings, and a long-distance separation complete with a stripper and her snake. One moment you're soaring along with Jamie as his first book is published just as he falls deeply in love with a girl, and the next, you're peering into a struggle anyone in a committed relationship can relate to—and you won't be the only one tearing up in the audience.
With one heartbreaking exception, the pair never interact on stage—but the charismatic Harper and Clark are more than capable of capturing your attention on their own, effortlessly drawing you into the world of the imperfect lovers. The best reason to see the production? The conversations that will happen after the show is over. Stick around any group of people exposed to the musical and you'll open up a Pandora's box of philosophy about love, youth, infidelity, gender roles, and success. The second best reason? Your immediate indoctrination into a self-selecting group of fans that are happy to have those passionate conversations again and again.
For Superfans: Stop holding your breath for the upcoming movie adaptation! This is the live production of the Last Five Years you've been waiting for. Despite their deep emotional connection to the music and story, the vast majority of fans I've met only know the work through the 2002 original cast recording. That's one of the most amazing things about the play—it's completely feasible to fall in love with the characters with your ears alone, which puts any visual performance at an immediate disadvantage. Not only is the song cycle incredibly vocally demanding for any actor, the mere mortals on the stripped-down stage, belting without amplification, must go head-to-head with our imaginations! Luckily, Harper and Clark get it right.
It helps that pianist Eric Little stays extremely faithful to the original recording we've come to know and love—from those melancholy opening player-piano keys of Still Hurting to the bouncy, rhythmic chords of Goodbye Until Tomorrow—anchoring the sound of the musical despite any deviations in vocal delivery from the lovers. As for those deviations themselves, some are more welcome than others. Harper's ebullient interpretation of the fable-like Schmuel Song, a track this reviewer often skips over when it pops up on iTunes, is laugh-out-loud engaging, but his accusatory interpretation of If I Didn't Believe in You will certainly surprise the Jamie lovers in the audience. Both talented singers, Harper and Clark successfully transform Jamie and Cathy into three-dimensional people, complete with questionable fashion taste, sexual needs, and palpable vulnerability.
Remember, superfans: with great affection for a work of art comes great responsibility. Linger after the final notes of I Could Never Rescue You, wipe away your tears, and seek out the newbies in the audience. They'll certainly be ready to talk.