The Legacy Theatre, of Stony Creek, Connecticut, is the perfectly intimate, jewel-box setting for Jason Robert Brown’s musical, The Last Five Years. Directed by Keely Baisden Knudsen, this sung-through account of a five-year marriage has two engaging singer-actors, Tess Adams as Cathy, and Emmett Cassidy as Jamie, telling their story, with a twist.
Jamie (Cassidy) gives us the narrative in chronological order, beginning from the glorious day on which he meets Cathy, his “Shiksa Goddess” who will “break his mother’s heart,” while Cathy (Adams) starts from the end of their union, with the sorrowful “I’m Still Hurting,” and works backwards to the blissful moment of meeting. Some will view the structure as something of a gimmick, while others will argue that it captures memory’s subjectivity. For the show to work as a meditation on memory, however, the chemistry between the two actors must be unmistakable, even though Cathy and Jamie are only onstage together three times. And this is where The Legacy’s production is not quite successful.
Because the show depends almost entirely on its songs, the actors’ chemistry must be demonstrated by the quality of their voices. We must feel that Cathy and Jamie were, at least once, absolutely perfect for one another in order to feel heartbroken by their union’s end. But here, as lovely as each actor is, they seem to be in different plays. Cassidy has a rich, easy-going, folk-inspired voice (at times I heard James Taylor coming through, and this is a great compliment). By contrast, Adams, who has been singing all over the world since her youth, has a gorgeously classical sound. Her voice not only sets her apart from Cassidy, but its beauty also makes it difficult to believe, as the musical claims, that Cathy is a failing actress: any director would cast this Cathy in a hot New York heartbeat.
The contrasting chronology can be, at times, a bit hard to follow, and that problem lies
with the play. However, these differing vocal styles emphasize this difficulty.
In a two-character play, the set, lighting, props, and costumes all become that much more
important, and here they are especially important in helping the characters inhabit the same
world. Knudsen and her design collaborators have engineered some economical and sweetly
amusing set changes, such as Jamie’s move into Cathy’s apartment: as Cassidy sings, he packs
up his few belongings, which have lived on the left side of the stage, and moves them to the
right, never losing his warm focus on the audience. A similarly efficient transition occurs when
Cathy and Jamie join each other, mid-way through the action, and Adams removes a white jacket
to reveal a modest but unmistakable wedding dress.
Yet one wishes that the design team (lighting and set by Jamie Burnett; costumes by
Elizabeth Bolster; and props by Callie Liberatore) had surrounded Adams and Cassidy with a
few more set pieces, additional props, and greater variation in lighting to anchor them firmly in
reality. It’s a fine line here, as the focus must stay on the acting and the songs. Yet one wonders
why we see so little of the visual story-telling that theater so richly offers.
Despite these missteps, it’s a credit to Knudsen, Adams, and Cassidy that I had tears in
my eyes by the end of this marriage and the end of this show. There is no doubting the passion
and sincerity of the director and her actors, and the beautiful singing and skillful acting almost
carry the day.
For tickets ($45-75), call the Legacy Theatre, 128 Thimble Islands Road, Stony Creek Branford
at 203-315-1901 or online at LegacyTheatreCT.org. Performances are Wednesday at 7 p.m.,
Thursday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sunday
at 2 p.m.