As most of the country debates whether or not Anastasia Steele’s sexual awaking is empowering or just pure smut, Ocean State Theatre Company’s current offering, the contemporary musical The Last Five Years, presents a much more realistic look at love and relationships, warts and all.
So realistic, in fact, that writer and composer Jason Robert Brown’s former wife sued him over some of the show’s content claiming that it too closely resembled their tumultuous marriage, which she viewed as a violation of their divorce agreement. Maybe she would have preferred a little love Fifty Shades style?
Chronicled almost entirely by song, the musical details a five-year relationship from two entirely different perspectives: hers, going backward from break-up to meeting and his, going forward from meeting to break-up. And, while this certainly sounds like a clever storytelling device, it is also where things begin to fall apart.
This two-person production utilizes two opposing elevated platforms (serving as apartments), where each presents their side of the story. There is virtually no interaction between them, except for a brief moment when they cross paths at the midpoint of their relationship. Consequently, there is no chemistry established between them, there is nothing to get the audience invested in them as a couple; we don’t really care if they succeed nor do we care if they fail — a fatal flaw.
The lack of dialogue also keeps the musical stuck in low gear. Spoken words serve as the thread that holds a story together; it allows the audience to connect the dots from one song to the next and thus make sense of it all. Because the story is told almost entirely by song, I found myself straining to hear each and every lyric so I wouldn’t miss anything important.
Then, there are the songs. Of the 14, there really are none that will leave any lasting impression on audience members; they will not be humming any of these tunes on their way out of the theater or while driving home. There are no catchy choruses or jingles, the lyrics are dry and topical, too literal and contemporary. At times, they resembled the lyrics of a really bad country song, just recounting a litany of daily events.
But the musical does have some bright spots, one being Rhode Island native Alyssa Gorgone. She first got involved in acting while attending La Salle Academy. She later earned a degree in theater from St. Mary’s University. After a brief foray in the world of banking, Ms. Gorgone’s first big break came when she landed a role in Trinity Repertory Company’s A Christmas Carol. She has been acting ever since and now resides in New York City.
As Cathy, she makes the most out of the little she has to work with. Initially, her voice sounds a bit shaky, but gets stronger and stronger throughout the show. Of all the musical numbers, hers are perhaps the most memorable with the charming and humorous “A Summer in Ohio.” Later she belts out “I Can Do Better Than That,” displaying nice range and control.
Ms. Gorgone also seems more capable than her counterpart Jamie, New York actor David Demato, at projecting genuine emotions. She clearly had more invested in the relationship, begging the question, how did she last five years?
Demato’s performance comes off as flat and uninteresting, though I was not sure if that was a product of the script or his acting. Nonetheless, he appears one dimensional and unemotional. Even when trying to express his true feelings, “If I Didn’t Believe in You,” he sounds self-centered and condescending. Then, while writing his break-up letter during “Nobody Needs to Know,” his outpouring of grief feels forced.
The musical’s most touching moment occurs during its closing minutes with Cathy standing outside her front door whispering, “Good night” after their first date and Jamie standing opposite her saying, “Good bye” as he departs. This production needs more scenes like this to give it legs.
On another bright note, the four-piece orchestra led by Paul Buono was quite good. They were tight throughout, giving life to many of the songs’ listless lyrics. And, once again, the set designers did their part, making the most of a pretty minimalistic set with two nicely decorated, gender-appropriate platforms (representing his and hers apartments) with a pier and a front door stoop smartly configured within the two living quarters.
As a disclaimer of sorts, perhaps the gritty realism of The Last Five Years was simply just too much for this reviewer, for I prefer the sappy musicals of yesteryear. Give me “The Music of the Night” any day of the week.
OSTC’s production of The Last Five Years runs through March 15. For tickets or more information, visit oceanstatetheatre.org.