The Last Five Years

The Last Five Years

Phoenix Theatre Company Hormel Theatre
Phoenix, AZ, March 19, 2023

Reviewed by Lynn Timmons Edwards

In his pre-show greeting, Michael Barnard, producing artistic director of Phoenix Theatre Company thanked the audience for attending live theater in the fifth largest city in the U.S.  From the first few moments of The Last Five Years, it was clear that Phoenix offers an experience that rivals New York City and can stand tall at number five. The two-person musical starring Alyssa Chiarello and Sime Kosta and written by Jason Robert Brown debuted in 2001 in Chicago and moved to off-Broadway in 2002. It was made into a film which was released in 2015. I liked the film but I was impressed much more by the live show. I became absorbed in the story and felt the emotional ups and downs of the couple’s five-year arc, which went from meeting to marriage to break-up.

Brown created an intersecting arc. The show begins with Chiarello’s character (Cathy) at the end of the couple’s story as she is racked with pain when she reads the good-bye letter from Kosta’s character, Jamie. That was followed by Kosta’s exuberant entrance, which takes place in 1997, when he has just met the girl of his dreams. She moves backwards in time as he moves forward. They share only one scene in which their arcs meet; it’s at the time they marry and they sing two duets, “The Next Ten Minutes” and “A Miracle Would Happen.”

Alyssa Chiarello and Sime Kosta

Chiarello is a frequent flyer on the PTC stage. I knew her to be a talented singer with a strong voice and a high belt. As Cathy she was triumphant, capturing the subtleties and nuances of each emotional change over the five-year time frame. She is always believable. We see the young, brash, rough-around-the-edges Cathy who first captured Jamie’s heart. We see that she has struggled to be a working actress in New York, taking inspiration from her lover Jamie’s writing success. She finally books a job in summer stock in Ohio, which she sums up in the song “Summer in Ohio.” We see her as a frustrated wife as she tries to garner more attention from Jamie. We share her heartbreak in the opening number, “Still Hurting,” in which she displays both disbelief and the anger of grief.

Kosta was equally brilliant as Jamie as he bounded about the stage as a young man on the verge of selling his first book and being thrilled at falling in love with a “Shiksa Goddess.” Although he recognizes things are “Moving Too Fast,” he moves in with Cathy, marries her, urges her to follow her dreams, but ultimately becomes frustrated as well, finally betraying his wedding vows in “Nobody Needs to Know.” The audience withheld applause after the song, perhaps because we shared his conflict and the sadness of realizing he had reached the end of the relationship. Kosta has a Broadway baritone that glided through the score. He showed the emotional range it required, going from boyish naivety to becoming an ambitious artist and then to being a selfish partner. I believed that Jamie loved Cathy, but by the end he had become emotionally attached to a new lover, which caused the break-up.

Although the two actors shared only one scene, we felt the presence of each of them because Chiarello and Kosta see each other on stage as they sing. They balance each other as if they were on a teeter-totter. Most amazing is that by the end, I could not take sides;I felt for both parties. Sometimes marriages just end. Brown based the piece on his first failed marriage.

It is not for me to tell Jason Robert Brown how to write a musical, but I think “The Schmuel Song,” which is an allegory about Jamie’s feelings about Cathy’s inertia and which is sung beside a Christmas tree, is too long. It stops the forward motion of their story, and although Kosta performed it like a pro, it could be cut down.

It was a surprise to find a six-piece orchestra conducted by pianist Craig Bohmler (featured in the July/August 2022 issue of Cabaret Scenes). The musicians all deserve recognition: Jon Paul Escobedo (guitar), Linda Lambie (violin), Emily Hunt (cello 1), Karen Koger (cello 2), and TJ Maliszewski (bass).  In the small, 250-seat house, they created a rich tapestry of sound to support the musical storytelling.

Bravo to scenic designer Sarah Harris for her backdrop of a cut-out urban landscape of purple with yellow for streaming light. A small revolving turntable stage left allowed for smooth, seamless scene changes, and the elevation of the small stage created comfortable spaces for the actors to vary their placement and to enhance the musical staging, which was well-conceived by director Dwayne Hartford. Hartford gets an A+ for his casting, as does Sarah Lindsey for the array of costumes and hair designs that depicted the passage of time between 1997 and 2002.

Phoenix Theatre Company is planning to expand the Hormel Theatre into a 500-hundred seat house. In its current configuration, one can barely cross one’s legs because the rows are so close together. But I will miss the intimacy that made The Last Five Years a joy to experience from beginning to end and from end to beginning. The show runs through April 2; if you can get a ticket, you will not be disappointed.

Lynn Timmons Edwards

Lynn writes and performs themed cabaret shows based on the songs of the Great American Songbook throughout Arizona. She has had three short plays produced in the Theatre Artists Studio Festival of Summer Shorts and is working on a full length play, "Fairy," based on the life of Mary Russell Ferrell Colton, a founder of the Museum of Northern Arizona. In addition to writing and singing, Lynn plays bridge and tennis and enjoys traveling with her husband and artistic companion, Bob. Born in Ohio, Lynn is a graduate of Denison University (BA), Arizona State University (MPA) and has lived in Arizona since 1977.