Fort Worth — There’s probably some writerly metaphor to be made about a show featuring a bittersweet love story taking place in the dark bowels of a basement, but any dank misery is overcome by the gripping performances in Stolen Shakespeare Guild’s production of the musical The Last Five Years.
With music and lyrics by Tony nominee Jason Robert Brown (The Bridges of Madison County), and directed by Nathan Autrey, the show is all about the relationship between Cathy (Mary Jerome) and Jamie (Mitchell Furguson). What makes it interesting is that Brown structures the story along two intersecting paths. The two characters only interact one time, right in the middle. Otherwise, Jamie tells his side of the story from beginning to end whilst Cathy tells her story from the end working back to the beginning.
The effect is jarring and intriguing all at once. Cathy opens the show with the painful balled, “Still Hurting,” while Jamie immediately follows with an upbeat song about meeting Jamie titled “Shiksa Goddess.”
This takes a rather tired concept and makes it interesting again. First, there’s the linear but contrasting nature of the story’s progression—or regression, as it were—paired with the fact that the characters rarely interact and mostly focus on telling their side of the story. This gives the narrative a disjointed feel, yet just like a jigsaw puzzle slowly coming into place, each piece informs and ultimately makes the task of assigning victim and villain roles exceedingly difficult as this format adds gobs of complexity.
Brown’s songs, both somber and celebratory, equal the complexity of the narrative. They’re challenging, often emotional pieces that require talented performers. To that end, Autrey has found two exceptionally talented people to inhabit these roles. Having to go from sheer bliss to utter despair, or the opposite, within a two-hour, two-act musical is difficult enough without having to wail songs throughout it, yet Jerome and Ferguson make it look effortless. Their voices are outstanding and their performances wash over the audience in wave of empathy and connection. The joy and pain are so real, and so close to home.
The ending is ambiguous. Given the structure of the story, the happy ending is actually the end, and both characters are going in opposite directions anyway. That’s perhaps why this show isn’t more mainstream. It never got a Broadway run, though was very successful Off-Broadway. It does makes the show much more engaging and thoughtful, however, and an overall more enjoyable experience.
The one critical note comes in where SSG chose to stage the show, in the basement of the Fort Worth Community Arts Center, below the Sanders Theatre where they usually perform. Non-traditional theater spaces can be great, and there are certainly theaters in town, like Undermain Theatre, that make it work. But, like Undermain sometimes struggles with, this space has a column problem. Sitting anywhere but the middle virtually guarantees an obstructed view, especially since the uncredited scene design is not a cohesive set, but several spread-out vignette-style settings. So, arrive early for a good seat.
Aside from that, the show is flawless in presenting an otherwise flawed, and ultimately doomed, relationship. Love is rarely easy and most relationships fail. While that may sound like a negative viewpoint to take, The Last Five Years shows that there’s still a lot worth cherishing and there’s always something to learn from the experience. Even if it’s sometimes confusing to think about, it’s worth going through. Just like this show.