By Erika Fleegle
A man and a woman meet in the center of the room. He leans in to kiss her. She stops him, turning her head, and exits. A piano plays a few distinct notes on a descending scale. Orchestral music swells. The woman, Cathy, takes a seat at a writing desk and begins to sing:
Jamie is over and Jamie is gone. Jamie’s decided it’s time to move on…
But Jamie, the man, is still there, frozen at the center, melting only momentarily to take his place on a set of stairs on the opposite side of the room as Cathy belts the final notes of the ballad signaling the end of their relationship.
Thus begins Front Porch Theatricals’ production of Jason Robert Brown’s not-quite love story, The Last Five Years, which will run until Sunday, May 31 at the New Hazlett Theater in Allegheny Center.
The production was lead by co-producers Leon and Nancy Zionts, and Bruce Smith as part of the company’s first-ever, two-show summer season. This year’s summer season, “Romance, with a Twist!” showcases, according to Zionts, “meaningful musicals that Zionts and Smith feel will make a social, moral or cultural impact on the community while telling unconventional love stories.”
Pittsburgh natives Erin Lindsey Krom and David Toole portrayed the respective roles of Cathy Hiatt and Jamie Wellerstein.
The Last Five Years tells the story of Jamie and Cathy, two New Yorkers who fall in and out of love in the span of five years. While Jamie tells, or rather sings, their story chronologically, Cathy tells her side backwards, starting with the moment she realizes their relationship has ended. The only moment we as an audience see the pair truly interact during the show is in the middle of their personal plotline; their wedding.
This presents an interesting challenge, particularly in terms of setting the stage. The New Hazlett Theater’s stage construction is more of the “theater in the round” style, with an open “stage” in the center, surrounded by seating on three sides with the orchestra pit toward the back. The actors had to make strategic exits on and off a sundial-like circular platform that served as the stage (all too fitting for the theme of the passage of time), sometimes sliding off on wheeled platforms that fit like puzzle pieces into the edges of the sundial. For the duration of the show, Krom and Toole keep to their own side of the stage; Krom on stage left and Toole on stage right. Following their sole interaction, they switch sides, further illustrating their star-crossed timeline.
More so than the set and stage direction, the music and lyrics are the true storytelling points of the show. Like a game of vocal volleyball, Toole and Krom launch their stories, joys and grievances back and forth with minimal intermittent dialogue across seamless musical transitions. When we first see Jamie, he’s celebrating the realization that he’s in love with Cathy along with a string of successes in his career as a writer. His transition from the beginning to the end of their relationship makes for interesting character development. Though it’s expected to go from happy to sad throughout the course of a show, Toole does so in a relatable fashion, making us feel as though we are falling in and out of love right along with him. The pivotal moment for Toole comes during “Nobody Needs To Know,” the slow, powerful ballad during which Jamie admits and accepts that he is no longer getting what he needs from Cathy. Several attendants noted that they had never seen this particular number performed this way before, all in a good way. Starting off tender and slow, Toole tries to justify Jamie’s actions before it all emotionally and vocally crescendos into a breakdown so wrought with feeling that the entire space fell utterly silent. On the verge of tears, he collapses, finishing the number in the same soft tone with which he began it.
While Toole’s character development is perhaps the most gut-wrenching, it could be said that Krom has the most difficult transition of the show. Much like recovering from a romance gone wrong, it can be difficult –even on stage– to put aside the hurt expressed in the beginning of the show in favor of a happier ending. However, Krom does so with such grace and strength that it makes us believe she had never been hurt in the first place. The Point Park graduate sails through powerful musical numbers, reeling the audience in with raw emotion and sharp wit. When we finally see the pair together, their chemistry is undeniable. Krom and Toole bring “The Next Ten Minutes,” a number covering Jamie’s proposal to Cathy as well as their wedding, to life, infusing each “I do” with so much devotion as they vow to work toward their happily ever after.
As The Last Five Years progresses, it gets easier to see where each number fits in to the chronological timeline, creating a more cohesive story. While a chronological story may make more sense, the back-and-forth style of the show provides a certain element of balance, the audience feeling content that both sides of the story are being told, something that doesn’t happen often when a relationship ends. And though the ending isn’t necessarily happy, Front Porch’s production reminds us that romance can still be delightful, even with a twist.
Tickets are still available for the remaining productions of The Last Five Years. The show runs Thursday, May 28-Saturday, May 30 at 8 p.m., and closes on Sunday, May 31 at 2 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at www.bitly.com/Last5YearsPlay or by calling 1-888-718-4253. For more information about Front Porch Theatricals, visit www.frontporchpgh.com.