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Theater Review: The Last Five Years

Jamie Mittelstadt and Margaret Berkowitz in The Last Five Years. Photo by Luque Photography.

As far as off-Broadway modern musicals go, The Last Five Years has garnered significant popularity. Since its 2001 Chicago premiere, this intimate portrayal of love and loss has seen several star-studded productions (featuring cast members such as Cynthia Erivo and Samantha Barks), as well as a 2014 film adaptation starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan. And as this theater kid classic garners even more attention with viral soundbites on Tiktok, the Sierra Madre Playhouse has seized their moment to kick off the summer with a fan favorite.

Written by Jason Robert Brown (the Tony-award winning playwright and lyricist behind works such as Parade and The Bridges of Madison County), The Last Five Years recounts the doomed love story of Cathy Hiatt and Jamie Wellerstein, two twenty-something artists in New York City who find themselves married and divorced in the span of, you guessed it, five years. Based on Brown’s own divorce, the tragicomedy offers an intimate, and perhaps only slightly biased, portrayal of youthful ambition and the sobering effects of time. Directed by Josh Shaw with musical direction by Joshua Foy (a double Josh production, if you will), the production runs just 90 minutes without intermission.

Both cast of The Last Five Years. (L-R) Byran Mittelstadt (Jamie); Margaret Berkowitz (Cathy); Jackie Bonsignore (Cathy); Jayde Mitchell (Jamie). Photo by Luque Photography.

While the show’s subject material is not the most uplifting, per se, The Last Five Years manages to strike a critical balance of humor and heart. The story progresses nonlinearly– Jamie’s version of the fated love affair is told chronologically, while Cathy’s plotline works backwards through the divorce and proceeding relationship. Without an ensemble, Cathy and Jamie hardly ever interact, save one moment on their wedding day, and they each occupy different points in time. While this somewhat atypical style effectively achieves a “ships passing in the night” sort of dynamic, it also prevents the plot from ever getting too tragic. Even at their most desolate (the beginning and end of the show, respectively), Cathy and Jaime balance each other out– one person’s hope to another’s anguish. 

Indeed, The Last Five Years is a tour-de-force of singing and performance. On this occasion, the roles have been double cast, and the specific show I attended featured Margaret Berkowitz as Cathy and Bryan Mittelstadt as Jamie. Despite their minimal on-stage interaction, the pair played well off of each other while also turning in strong vocal performances. Berkowitz’s bright-eyed and only slightly desperate Cathy is a fateful match for Mittelstadt’s cool and self-important Jamie.

Margaret Berkowitz and Bryan Mittelstadt in The Last Five Years. Photo by Luque Photography.

Still, the production plays very safe, and I craved bolder movement throughout. A solo-oriented musical, The Last Five Years is uniquely at risk of stand-and-deliver type numbers. The actors’ physical performance was limited by the staging of the production, which insisted on confining each character to a series of small rooms– one of two thrusts or a central platform. The thrusts were dominated by large tables, and, with an inclination towards realism, many numbers were performed seated or standing face-out. 

The highlights of the production were those numbers that pushed a little bigger, granting space to both character and performer to play. “A Summer in Ohio” and “Climbing Uphill/Audition Sequence” are stand-outs, and the culminating song, “Goodbye Until Tomorrow/I Could Never Rescue You” is particularly affecting. 

Margaret Berkowitz in The Last Five Years. Photo by Luque Photography.

The actors themselves are accompanied by live music– some performances featuring Joshua Foy as a solo pianist and other nights performed with a full musical ensemble, featuring cello, violin, guitar, and bass. I was lucky to see the entire ensemble (though a solo piano accompaniment would lend an interesting intimacy to the musical). The actors are occasionally overwhelmed by the volume of the ensemble and I struggled to make out the lyrics at times. The musical ensemble, seated on stage, offers a direct comparison between “real people” and the characters, literalizing the trials and triumphs of artists hacking it in the industry.

The Last Five Years eliminates the usual bells-and-whistles of a broadway-style musical, scaling back opulence in favor of a personal portrait of love over time. It is told from a distinctly male perspective (indeed, Brown was sued by his ex-wife Theresa O’Neill for violating NDAs pertaining to their divorce), but I’ll save that for my Feminism 101 think-piece.

The Last Five Years runs through June 16th at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd, Sierra Madre. Performances are 8:00 pm Fridays and Saturdays, 4:00 pm Saturdays, and 2:00 pm Sundays. Tickets run $12-$45 and can be purchased here.

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Sika Lonner
Sika Lonner
Sika Lonner is a Los Angeles based actress and writer. Her training includes Loyola Marymount University (B.A.), Academy of Dramatic Art - University of Zagreb, and Michael Tschechow Studio Berlin.

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