It has been said about Ginger Rogers that she did everything Fred Astaire did -- but backwards and in high heels. Rogers would appreciate the difficult task given to April Lindsay in The Last Five Years, as her character Cathy moves backward in time (and wears high heels) in Jason Robert Brown's award-winning musical about the demise of a relationship. The dramaturgical trick of this two-character show is its opposing time lines: Cathy tells the story of her relationship with Jamie (Todd Schaefer) in a series of flashbacks, leading ultimately to their first date; Jamie tells the story chronologically, ending as he leaves their marriage. It's I Do, I Do meets Betrayal, with the audience sorting the puzzle pieces of Jamie and Cathy's five years together.
Lindsay doesn't quite succeed in the monumental task of starting a story at the end and making you want to know how she got there. She's honest in her emotions while singing the lyrics of the opening song, "Still Hurting," but during the song's interludes she seems to be merely waiting. In contrast, Schaefer starts on a buoyant note with "Shiksa Goddess" and carries the audience easily along the forward path of his story. Brown seems to tilt the play subtly in Jamie's favor: His is a tale of success, while Cathy's clever songs are about her failures as an actress. In a crucial scene, Brown provides no rationale for Cathy shunning a celebratory fete thrown for Jamie, making her seem unsupportive. Later Jamie tells her, "I won't lose just because you can't win," again placing the blame for their problems on Cathy's unsuccessful shoulders.
Both Lindsay and Schaefer have great solo moments. Lindsay's "See I'm Smiling" and "Climbing Uphill" sparkle with self-deprecating humor. Schaefer nails "The Schmuel Song" and "A Miracle Would Happen" with flair. But the highlight of the production is the one scene they share together -- his proposal and their marriage. "The Next Ten Minutes" is a joyous duet, filled with hope. Lindsay and Schaefer seem comfortable together; their love is palpable. The moment when they part and their story lines move out-of-sync is heartbreaking.
The fourteen songs that comprise this eighty-minute intermissionless show vary in style from blues to rock to ballads. Brown's sophisticated lyrics and clever musical phrases are reminiscent of Sondheim, and in the few instances where the characters sing together, the harmonies are lush. Led by musical director Chris Petersen on piano, the four-piece band plays together well, with violinist Matt Shivelbine shining with solo lines. Unfortunately, the band occasionally overpowers the singers, even though the latter employ body microphones. The curse of amplified music and voices is that the mics are notoriously flaky: They fade in and out, leaving the audience straining to hear or blasting them out of the dramatic moment.
This Washington Avenue Players Project continues artistic director Schaefer's focus on collaborative work by using a "directing staff" of six instead of the traditional sole director. However this process worked, it created some good stage movement, particularly at the end of the show when Lindsay and Schaefer mirror the show's opening. But someone missed a few distracting details: The unseen characters Cathy and Jamie speak to should be placed downstage; and why are they drinking white zinfandel out of brandy snifters?
More important, the show doesn't go anywhere after the marriage scene. Jamie's story needs to keep building, but the second half of the show seems like a long downward spiral to a foregone conclusion. It's hard to know if this is the fault of the play or the production -- in many ways the opposing-time-lines conceit is more interesting in concept than in reality.
The intimate nature of the songs and the story seem to cry out for a simpler production. Perhaps with a small set and only a piano to accompany the two actors, the audience would be able to connect more authentically with the characters. The rock-concert feel of this production has some advantages, but it might be more successful if it were unplugged.