The Last Five Years, a musical about love lost plays at the Isabel Bader Theatre in Toronto
I’m a big fan of the musical The Last Five Years, Jason Robert Brown’s complex and emotional roller-coaster ride through five years in the lives of two lovers, whose doomed relationship is told two ways. Specifically, he tells the story chronologically while she tells it backwards, allowing for them to meet only once in the very middle. It’s a good pick for the Toronto Summer Music Festival to put on at the Isabel Bader Theatre, as the score can really live and die based on how adept its leads are at carrying a vast range of weighty emotion.
Thankfully, this production more than does justice to the material.
The two vocal performers, Aaron Sheppard as Jaime and Vanessa Oude-Reimerink as Cathy, are fully committed vocally, bringing an operatic sound to the score that gives this production a unique edge. Sheppard’s Jaime inparticular shook the theatre with his booming tenor, and I loved the combination of his voice with Oude-Reimerink’s sweet and earnest Cathy. Sheppard mixes a slightly slovenly, everyman charm with that giant voice, and it’s an interesting contrast. Oude-Reimerink, meanwhile, plays up Cathy’s earnestness and slightly nervous energy to charming effect.
Highlights for me included Oude-Reimerink’s hilarious internal monologue as she auditions with ‘When You Come Home To Me’ for the hundredth time, which had great control and comic timing, nabbing some of the strongest laughs of the night; and Sheppard’s more haggard emotional turns in ‘If I Didn’t Believe in You’ and ‘Nobody Has to Know.’
The orchestra, placed on stage behind the performers so that we get a full look at them throughout, has a rich, sweeping sound throughout, carrying Jason Robert Brown’s lush score with finesse and visible passion that my guest picked up on and made a comment about on the way out of the theatre.
Unfortunately, I felt at times like the blocking and stage direction let this production down a little. Some of it felt a little stilted. There are a lot of moments where the characters are standing sideways, for example, essentially singing to the wings without making much forward eye contact. I don’t seem to remember this sticking out to me in other productions, but I felt occasionally shut out of the moment, even though the character was emoting strongly. I had similar issues during ‘The Schmuel Song’ when Jaime keeps his eyes to his notepad throughout.
Ultimately, though, the real appeal of this interpretation succeeds exactly where it needs to: namely, on the two leads playing Jaime and Cathy. I mentioned above that I’d seen this musical a few times, and while other versions have arguably been more polished, something about this version’s brute force emotion affected me more strongly than it has in previous incarnations. It’s a forceful interpretation, at least musically, and I found myself welling up more than once.
Moreover, there’s enough unique characterization work here to make me feel like I learned something new about the characters, which was a neat feeling to leave the theatre with. Newcomers to the show, like my guest who quite enjoyed it, will get a great introduction to some fine music, and will perhaps be more forgiving of the more inorganic staging.
The Last Five Years has only one more show on July 30th, and do go see it: it’s a moving and original interpretation of a great musical.
- The Last Five Years is playing as part of the Toronto Music Festival at the Isabel Bader Theatre (93 Charles St. W.)
- The final show plays at 7:30pm on July 30th.
- Ticket prices range from $35-$60 and are available online, by phone at 416-408-0208, or through the box office at The Weston Family Box Office, 273 Bloor Street West.
Photo of Vanessa Oude-Reimerink provided by the company.