March 6, 2014
This past weekend, seven Hamilton students performed Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years, directed by Lauren Baker ’16. Originally performed at Chicago’s Northlight Theatre in 2001, this unconventional musical examines the five-year relationship between rapidly aspiring novelist Jamie Wellerstein, played by Ben Goldman ’17, and Cathy Hyatt, a struggling but determined actress, played by Annie McArdle ’17.
Two key factors separate this musical from the traditional story of love and loss. Firstly, there are only two characters, each relaying his or her version of the story, yet barely interacting. This is a result of the second massively important detail: While Jamie tells his side chronologically from beginning to end, Cathy starts at the end of their relationship and relates her story backwards to the day they met. The two stories converge only once: in the middle of the performance, on their wedding day. As an audience member, it is critical to know ahead of time that the chronology is moving in opposite directions for each character.
The odd result of having only two characters, especially two characters who scarcely interact even with each other, is that we are rarely present for an action scene. The audience is only permitted access to the human reactions that follow each development. Arguably, this feature provides insight into the psyche of each character. Who better to relate their emotions than themselves? Yet at the same time this lends a fairly skewed perception to the plot, since we only receive input from the two individuals who are most directly involved, and therefore the most biased.
Having only two characters presents another challenge: these two actors are obliged to fill up the stage for a full 90 minutes without any assistance from secondary characters. The task is exhausting, and Brown’s challenging songs only make the performance all the more daunting to undertake. These tunes cover a wide vocal range and several genres, which Goldman and McArdle were both able to execute convincingly. Furthermore, since the drama was staged in the Fillius Events Barn, both actors were forced to engage with the audience. McArdle even weaved her way through the clusters of tables in the well-lit hall, singing beautifully and unselfconsciously among the crowd of peers.
Of the experience, Goldman commented, “[It was] really an emotional ride for me. Having a character who was so detestable in one respect, yet so relatable because he is beautifully flawed, was difficult. I felt like I got to know Jamie really well in my performance, and I was so grateful to get a chance to play a role with such a layered character.”
These talented singing actors were accompanied in the pit by Eliza Burwell ’17 (musical director, piano), Joe Roy ’14 (violin), Sarah Hammond ’14 (cello), Phil Parkes ’17 (cello) and Lucas Phillips ’16 (bass). This able group of musicians performed the score adeptly, creating a sound structure to support and stimulate the singers on stage.
While Cathy’s last song relates her first interaction with Jamie, her sense of ignorant optimism for their love provides a poignant counterpoint to Jamie’s final goodbye at the end of their failed marriage. Ultimately, even though the two characters only sing one brief song together in the middle of the musical, the audience feels connected enough to their story to leave the performance feeling at least a little subdued.