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A CurtainUp Review
The Last Five Years
by Kathryn Osenlund

The Last Five Years is completely re-envisioned for its Philadelphia premiere by Philadelphia Theatre Company (PTC). Gone are the wedding accoutrements, chairs, rowboat, bed, and moving stage of last year's off-Broadway production (see review). Sara Garonzik, producing artistic director, looked at the literalness of that production and said, echoing the words of one of the show's songs, "We can do better than that."

Michael Fagin's set is a semicircular wall with frames embedded in it and a very large free-standing half picture frame situated down left. The frame opens from half to full frame at the point where the character's stories converge, and then reverts to half a frame again, this time on stage right.

Photographs and video projected throughout the performance present the past that the characters are singing about. Assorted photographs give way to full frame video for the central pieces of the show, after which photographs return, and there is a neat photo effect at the end. Kudos to the lighting and projection designers.

The musical's structure (he moves forward and she moves backward in time), while conceptually interesting and satisfyingly symmetrical, allows for almost no interaction between the two characters, except in the centerpiece of the story. They sing together and then experience an odd moment of disengagement and roll-back into their separate trajectories. All other songs are solitary affairs. Well directed by Joe Calarco, the actors/singers capture the mood changes corresponding to the different stages of the story. Both are equally strong. Wayne Wilcox as Jamie is kinetic and animated, and Nicole Van Giesen as Cathy has a wonderful luminous quality.

"Climbing Uphill," sung by Cathy as an audition piece, is particularly well written and well performed. Overall the music is good. The songs are clever, and the musicians for this production, who are never seen, are real pro's. However, Brown's modern, knowing lyrics are sung in service to a "downer" of a story from the get-go. There are some funny songs and happy moments, but they are pre-doomed, which kind of cancels them out.

The Last Five Years didn't have much of a life in New York (Editor's Note: Though it had an enthusiastic following while it did and prompted a popular show CD). This production is truly well done, and if the story had anything upbeat going for it it, PTC's take on it would give the show the chance it needs. Given anything hopeful in it, The Last Five Years could have been a classic.

The Last Five Years Playwright and composer: Jason Robert Brown
Directed by Joe Calarco
Cast: Nicole van Giesen, Wayne Wilcox
Set Design: Michael Fagin
Lighting Design: Chris Lee
Sound Design: Nick Kourtides
Costume Design: Anne Kennedy
Projection Design: Michael Clark
The Philadelphia Theatre Company at Plays & Players Theater, Delancey St. Running time 1 hr and 30 mins with no intermission 03/14/03-04/13/03; opening 03/19/03
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 03/19 performance
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