SALT LAKE CITY — The Last Five Years, presented by Salt Lake Shakespeare at the U of U’s Babcock Theatre, is a production full of honest and captivating moments. Lead actors Tia Galanis (who plays Cathy Hyatt) and Taylor J. Smith (who plays Jamie Wellerstein) both deliver commendable performances in this musical gem written by the remarkably talented composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown.
Inspired by Brown’s own failed marriage to Theresa O’Neill, the musical The Last Five Years, explores the five-year relationship between struggling actress Cathy Hyatt and rising novelist Jamie Wellerstein. The show is presented in a unique format in which Jamie’s side of the story starts with just after the couple has first met (chronological order) and Cathy’s story is told in reverse chronological order (beginning the show at the end of the marriage). This uncommon format means the two characters don’t directly interact with each other, except for a wedding song in the middle as their timelines intersect.
Salt Lake Shakespeare’s production of The Last Five Years at the Babcock Theatre is so successful for a variety of reasons. Each member of the production staff made strong contributions to the show, as was evident in the set design, direction, and music. Director Denny Berry deserves high recognition for taking two incredibly talented musical theatre actors and directing them in such a way that each stirring song in the show is a meaningful moment in which the audience is able to delve deeper into the complex and heartfelt relationship between Cathy and Jamie.
Music director Alex Marshall also deserves praise for his incredible talent and ability to take on the beautifully orchestrated, and often times very challenging, score of The Last Five Years. Marshall’s music direction allowed for the tremendous talent of Galanis and Smith to shine through. Near perfect vocals were evident in every song; however, standout performances included Galanis’s performance of the song “I’m A Part of That.” The song is set at one of Jamie’s book parties in which Cathy sings about how he ignores her for his writing, but that she will always love him. Galanis’s strong voice seemed to ride the flows and shifts of the music, which allowed for a performance in which I relished every note she sang. Her portrayal of the matter of fact, yet head-over-heels character was evident each time her eyes shifted focus while singing about how Jamie sometimes ignores her, to how she simply loves him and always will, despite his flaws. Smith’s solid voice was just as good as Galanis’s, as was evident in his performance of the song “Moving Too Fast.” Although he appeared less than committed to the simple choreography of the song, the upper register of his voice soared with the lyrics at the latter part of the song.
Another aspect of the show that I throughly enjoyed was that Smith and Galanis knew how to act through their songs—something that not every musical theatre performer does. Many actors rely instead on the talent of their voice to simply carry them through the song, which in turn comes off rather like a “concert” performance in which almost no acting or emotional connection takes place. In contrast, Galanis was particularly effective at acting the song in the piece “A Summer in Ohio” in which each facial expression or movement seemed purposeful. This allowed every line of the song to be easily visualized. Smith’s performance of “Nobody Needs To Know” was also particularly poignant as his voice and facial expressions exuded the sting and self-realization that he could justify his affair with another woman. With tears almost visible, Smith drew me in and left me wanting more when he was finished singing.
The set design by Kevin Dudley was another one of the production’s highlights. The basic set consisted mostly of large, somewhat opaque, hanging vertical panels. Each panel was then shifted along the track that was mounted on the ceiling. This ingenious process allowed each scene’s different location to be apparent, never feeling as though the action was all taking place at the same location.
Salt Lake Shakespeare’s production of The Last Five Years is a rare musical theatre treat that will leave audiences wanting more. With beautifully composed heartfelt lyrics, the musical explores the disconnect between two people who love each other, but ultimately fall out of love. The production is successful on many levels as both acting and singing pair nicely together with the well thought out set design. For contemporary musical theatre fans, or those who are familiar with Brown’s work, Salt Lake Shakespeare’s production of The Last Five Years is an essential evening of theatre.