‘Last Five Years’ at Tipping Point explores how a love story goes sideways
NORTHVILLE, Mich.–Playwrights have been telling love stories since theater first began, so it is a challenge to come up with a new way to tell one.
It is what Jason Robert Brown succeeded in doing with “The Last Five Years,” which opened this past weekend at Tipping Point Theatre. Directed by Matt Foss, with musical direction by Bradley Lieto, this musical love story is told in two directions—one person telling it from the beginning of the relationship to the end and the other from the end of the relationship to the beginning.
It does mean there are no such things as spoilers in this show, as the very first song tells us that the couple is getting a divorce. The musical’s purpose isn’t to show us how things end or whether there is a happily ever after, but rather to show how the relationship got to where it did and how a love story can grow and die.
Angie Kane Ferrante plays Catherine Hiatt and Nick Yocum plays Jamie Wellerstein, the two lovers who play out the doomed relationship.
Ferrante is able to portray hurt so well that you almost need to start taking in her performance with tissues. She beautifully captures a sadness that will define Cathy for the entire musical. It is what Ferrante does best. She is able to tug at the audience’s heartstrings and bring them into Cathy’s deepest feelings. She has a rich, clear voice that is compelling.
The downside, though, is that she so successfully captures the deepest pits of the relationship that at times she struggles achieve the heights or the humor in the character. Yes, that is a challenge when you have to start at the end and work your way back, effectively having your character forget what she has learned and reverse her arc, but that is the show’s conceit and what the role demands.
Yocum similarly is at his best when he is performing heart-felt ballads. He is especially wonderful when telling the story that Jamie wrote “The Schmuel Song” and “If I Didn’t Believe in You.” Those are songs that require a sustained emotion and Yocum hits those with strength. He is challenged when it comes to shifting gears to humor and showing joy. “Shiksa Goddess” doesn’t have quite the emotional energy to launch the relationship with excitement in contrast to Cathy’s opening number. Later, in “Nobody Needs to Know,” Yocum could look for some varying emotional levels to match the mood swings that the lyrics describe.
Throughout the show, Yocum joins the two orchestra members in the pit (Ann Marie Jones on violin and Bradley Liete on piano) to provide guitar music and supplemental percussion. Given that the play is set “now” and there was the use of cell phones, the presence of a manual typewriter felt out of place—what writer today uses a manual typewriter? Yet, its use as a percussion instrument early in the show made it a forgivable anachronism.
The musical is well-designed for the intimate space of Tipping Point Theatre. The set is bare, only four chairs with minimal coats and scarves to allow for slight changes in costume. Each actor has a side where most of his or her numbers are performed. Only occasionally do they cross the borders and Foss makes sure those moments are critical moments in the story telling.
Jason Robert Brown proves to us in this musical that there is beauty in sadness and loss and it is something Ferrante and Yocum do well together. It is worth the trip to Tipping Point to experience this bittersweet love story, one filled with complexities on why relationships succeed and fail.