The Last Five Years: Pioneer Productions Company at the Art House, Jersey City
The Last Five Years is the most famous Broadway musical never to appear on Broadway. Written by 3-time Tony winner Jason Robert Brown (Parade, The Bridges of Madison County, Honeymoon in Vegas), the show had its premiere at Chicago’s Northlight Theatre in 2001, then played Off Broadway at the Minetta Lane Theatre in 2002 and at Second Stage (with Adam Kantor and Betsy Wolfe) in 2013. The 2015 film adaptation starred Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick. Although it is performed often in venues around the world (as a two-hander, it’s a natural for regional theatre companies looking to keep budgets low), it has yet to make its way to the Main Stem.
The story line is a classic he said/she said tale of love found and lost. But there’s a twist: the two characters, Jamie Wellerstein, an up-and-coming writer (Daniel Peter Vissers) and struggling actress Cathy Hiatt (Shanna Levine-Phelps) relate their tale through alternating songs, with Cathy starting in the present, when the marriage ends, and Jamie beginning in the past, when he and Cathy first meet. We witness the joy, uncertainty, and heartbreak, from their two perspectives, backwards and forward through time. Because of the play’s unique structure, Cathy and Jamie sing together only once, at the close of Act 1, when their stories cross paths on their wedding day (“The Next 10 Minutes”).
The show is sung through, with very little dialogue. The opening tune, “Still Hurting,” introduces Cathy at the moment she realizes her marriage is over. She sings, “I’m still hurting…I’m covered with scars I did nothing to earn,” then she slips off her wedding ring and places it on the table where Jamie has already left his. In contrast, Jamie’s first song, “Shiksa Goddess” (one of the show’s best as well as best-known) is an exuberant, hysterical ode to the Irish Catholic lass Jamie has just met and instantly fallen for. Cathy is the polar opposite of a suitable match for a nice Jewish boy—and that’s exactly what makes her so completely irresistible. Jamie imagines the havoc his unorthodox choice in a mate will provoke:
“I’m breaking my mother’s heart;
The JCC of Spring Valley is shaking and crumbling to the ground.
And my grandfather’s rolling in his grave.”
So enamored of her total goyishness is he that nothing about Cathy can dampen his ardor. Among the clever and uproarious characteristics that Jamie vows he would accept of his Shiksa Goddess:
“If you had a pierced tongue, that wouldn’t matter.
If you once were in jail or you once were a man,
If your mother and your brother had ‘relations’ with each other,
And your father was connected to the Gotti clan,
I’d say, ‘Well, nobody’s perfect.’
It’s tragic but it’s true:
I’d say, “Hey! Hey! Shiksa goddess!
I’ve been waiting for someone like you.”
Both Shanna Levine-Phelps and Daniel Peter Vissers are strong, confident performers and trained, capable singers. Vissers, like any actor playing Jamie, has the advantage in The Last Five Years, as his character is the more sympathetic of the two. After all, Brown based the show on his own life, drawing heavily from his failed marriage to actress Theresa O’Neill. So it’s not surprising that Jamie’s character is more relatable (and gets the best songs). Because the character of Cathy starts out weepy and spends most of the show in a funk, the lion’s share of the fun and laughs go to Jamie. Other than Cathy’s breezy “A Summer in Ohio,” where she laments the life of an actress paying her dues Off, Off, Off, Off Broadway (where she is “Slowly going batty, 40 miles east of Cincinnati”), and her final number, where she sings the sunny counterpart to “Goodbye Until Tomorrow,” most of the tunes in her repertoire are weepy and angst-ridden. Any actress playing Cathy has a tough assignment, as Brown has stacked the deck in favor of his alter ego, Jamie. And it’s difficult not to notice that, while Ms. Levine-Phelps is a lovely young actress, she doesn’t look much like a “Shiksa Goddess” (although artistically, she is more than up to the role’s demands).
Vissers makes the most of his character’s most favored status. He equally conveys the humor in “Shiksa Goddess,” the youthful enthusiasm of “Moving Too Fast,” and the touching pathos of “Nobody Needs to Know” and “Goodbye Until Tomorrow.” He is a gifted, winning performer who truly shines in the role.
The Pioneer production includes a spare but effective set: a bed, a chair, and a clock on the wall flanked by two candles—one looking back, and the other looking forward, mimicking the structure of the show. The incredibly talented (and incredibly young) 5-piece band, under the direction of pianist Sean Cameron, does a superb job backing up the actors, serving as a valuable third performer in the production. Lighting design by John Latona, Jr. and technical direction by Lance A. Michel add to the production’s effectiveness.
The Last Five Years is at Art House, 136 Magnolia Avenue in Jersey City.
Performance schedule: Fridays & Saturdays, July 8, 9, 15, 16, 22, & 23 @8pm;
Sundays, July 10, 17, & 24 @3pm
For ticket information visit http://www.pioneerproductionscompany.org