From the first, beautiful, soul-crushing notes of the first, beautiful, soul crushing-song, The Last 5 Years puts your emotions on notice. Every heartbreak you ever endured, that episode of illogical and inconsolable sobbing on the bathroom floor, that pain-laden, tear duct-trashing final moment of realization that love had been lost, that your relationship was irrevocably broken and could not and would not be put back together, all THOSE feelings (that you were certain were flushed from the memory of each of your body’s cells long ago) will likely somehow miraculously resurface in the first 5 minutes of this show. I.e. Presents, San Jose’s newest (and perhaps most unusual) theatre company, is taking you on a cathartic, poetic and bittersweet musical journey with their production of The Last 5 Years, and it’s one that you may not have a chance to see performed again in a long time.
This is show infrequently done for a variety of reasons. 1) It’s small (only two actors really required) and its intimate content plays best on an intimate stage. 2) There’s no room for anything short of exceptional talent required to pull it off as it has a demanding score and huge emotional range. And, 3) fewer people nowadays take the risk doing a show that appears “unknown” as it could be “hard to sell.” Without a season or a cushion of funding to accommodate a possible loss, these types of shows get overlooked time and time again. The sad but true business side of the arts demand that sometimes a sure thing is the better choice for the company or at the very least a season of big name shows is needed in order to subsidize the one “lesser known,” but highly worthy piece. Though diehards of musical theater sing the praises of this show, there’s a good chance you may not have heard of it. This should change immediately, as it’s an exquisite show and a fine production.
The show itself is pretty genius. A variety of stripped down, musical styles and variations are used to recount the evolution and devolution of a 5 year relationship; her story starting from the end of it, his from the beginning. The lyrics are powerful, heartfelt and stunningly full of grace and pain. It’s comprised of 90 minutes of “yes, THAT, exactly that!” moments and proves very apt in articulating the compromises, sacrifices, insecurities, egos, arguments, perspectives, contradictions and powers at play in a challenged and ultimately condemned relationship. And, perhaps my favorite point and moment in the show, how a simple smile can negate all previously declared deal-breakers in an instant of irrational surrender. How one can so readily subject themselves to unhappiness repeatedly and knowingly send themselves down a doomed path as a result of the voodoo encapsulated in something as uncomplicated as an involuntary gesture. And, for extra pathos, there’s a theater and the life of making art thread throughout that pulls on the heartstrings of the artists in the room.
Ah, yes strings. The string heavy musical accompaniment is so lovely and contributes to that delicate atmosphere. The capable orchestra of cello, violin, piano and guitar is tucked back in the shadows, but their gorgeous accompaniment fills the space and resonates deeply. Without words, the music masterfully conveys sorrow and fragility as well as the giddy butterflies of newness and optimism.
Our female lead has a richness and accessible, relatable weight to her delivery that is nothing short of amazing. Every line has nuanced meaning and every word holds your attention, her entire body, genuinely expressive. Vocally she is absolutely, technically stunning and comically she is… and I use this word VERY rarely… perfect. She comes out, in my feeling, a bit ahead of her male counterpart only because she is just SO good. He holds his own to be sure, but she shines so very bright even at her lowest, grief-stricken moments you kind of want to hand her a tissue, give her a hug and live vicariously through her highs. Bottom line, neither would be on that stage if they weren’t up to the challenge and indeed they carry a beautiful show, beautifully.
Anytime you watch the dissolving of a relationship, no one really comes out looking like a hero or a victim. There is no victory celebration when something full of hope and joy dies and it doesn’t matter whose fault it is. The additional genius of this show is that it doesn’t make you take sides. It’s written, directed and performed not to dwell on something as petty as blame, but instead offers a history of feelings and perceived circumstances. You’re aware from the dimming of the house lights that you aren’t going to get any resolution; that the healing part that one can only assume will occur after the heartbreak, isn’t going to be shown. It’s not called the NEXT 5 Years. The lows leave you gutted for sure, but the creative way this show depicts something so easily depressing in a lighter and just so damned incredible way, makes it a thing of splendor and not all wretched gloom. The art leaves you hopeful even if the plot decidedly can not.
While there were some missteps and technical challenges in the final dress rehearsal last night (which I know will all be easily remedied before opening tonight) I feel we have an important and moving piece of theater worth seeing as well as new (to me at least) talent that is sure to brighten up stages across the Bay Area in the future. 4 jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for a touching example of all-around, exceptional storytelling. The Last 5 Years plays through June 1st only at the Theatre on San Pedro Square in Downtown San Jose.
**Another very strong incentive to come is that this Saturday and Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend a $15.00 per ticket DISCOUNT is being offered!! USE code JRB20 when ordering tickets: http://lastfiveyearssj.brownpapertickets.com/