Theater Review: ‘The Last Five Years’ at YSU Packs a Punch

By J.E. Ballantyne Jr.

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – “The Last Five Years” is a musical, but in a truly different sense than most of that genre.

It follows two characters, Cathy and Jamie, through the ups and downs of their five-year relationship. The characters play out their time together from their original meeting to the breakdown and end of their marriage.

The interesting and challenging aspect of the show is that Cathy tells her story from the end to the beginning, while Jamie tells his from beginning to end. It certainly keeps audience members on their collective toes to keep everything together as they experience the happiness and turmoil of this couple.

Youngstown State University Theatre and the Dana School of Music’s collaborative production of the show opened Thursday. The two-person play by Jason Robert Brown will run through Sunday in Spotlight Theater in Bliss Hall.

University Theatre is using two casts for this two-person show. On opening night, Cathy was played by Lacey Farina, with John Bearss starring as Jamie (they will repeat on Saturday, Feb. 18). The other cast, Lauren Ladd and Mitchell Sharp, will be in the performances tonight and Sunday, Feb. 19.

As the lights come up, the audience meets Cathy with the show’s opening number, “Still Hurting,” as she struggles to deal with the end of the marriage. She laments that the decision was Jamie’s while she is left with the hurt.

The scene then shifts to Jamie years earlier after he first met Cathy. He experiences all the euphoria and craziness upon discovering this goddess that he had always dreamed about.

Farina’s Cathy is an easy to like character that the actor has crafted very well. Although she isn’t strong vocally, she makes up for that with acting that conveys the myriad of emotions the character experiences.

This is a challenging role due to the way it is written, but Farina makes the audience feel the complete journey Cathy takes. It was unfortunate on Friday that microphone problems handicapped her opening song, but it did not deter her performance.

Cathy’s character takes many twists and turns, and Farina handles them all with ease, slipping in and out of various situations seamlessly. She is captivating with “I’m a Part of That” as she realizes that she is playing second fiddle to Jamie’s escalating career. She also excels with “A Summer in Ohio” as she writes to Jamie, describing the people she is working with in a theater production.

The emotions of both characters change direction quickly at many points, and Farina handles those transitions comfortably.

Bearss, as Jamie, comes on strong right out of the gate. He has a strong vocal presence and handles the energy and variations in the character very well. He builds on his strong opening, which helps to take him through every level of character change. And there are many changes.

Bearss creates a vibrant energy as the relationship with Cathy builds, but he also crafts the downfall of the relationship with a real feel of loss and confusion as he grapples with his new-found success as a writer and the tensions with Cathy.

Bearss has some real crowd-pleasing moments with “Moving Too Fast,” “The Schmuel Song” and “A Miracle Would Happen.”

With both characters moving in different directions as they tell their story, they come together only once on stage for a scene together. “The Next Ten Minutes” takes them from Jamie’s proposal to Cathy through their wedding.

Seeing them separately up to that point illustrates two strong characters emotionally, but the audience sees them gradually come together into a believable happy couple – even for only a short period of time.

Even though there is a plot to this musical, it is told more in vignettes than in a traditional plot line. Each character has a scene that then switches to the other character, and back and forth. It is a very effective way of watching the life and death of a relationship, which all of us have experienced in one way or another.

Director Matthew Mazuroski and his actors have put together a masterful production. The show moves swiftly, with no letdown in energy as each actor commands the stage with each appearance.

Music direction by Maria Fenty Denison was first-rate, although sometimes the six-piece orchestra did overpower some songs, especially in Farina’s case.

Set design by Todd Dicken was simple with a small platform, a bed, a park bench, a chair and a table. It was void of any particular location but served the actors well. Simplicity kept the focus where it should be – on the characters.

Lighting design by Grayson McCrory helped to reinforce mood and emotion.

Tight lighting on Cathy during her emotional opening scene to a wide-open bright scene for Jamie’s jubilation over meeting Cathy helped to convey the characters’ circumstances.

Costumes by Katherine Garlick also mirrored emotion and moments in certain situations.

“The Last Five Years” is certainly well done on all levels, and all connected to the production can be proud. 

Alas, however, there was one sad note to the evening.

Mazuroski announced during his curtain speech that he will be leaving YSU at the conclusion of the current semester. Mazuroski has been at YSU for 12 years and has done beautiful professional work with each production he has directed. He has touched the lives of many students during his tenure, some of which were present in the opening night audience. This will be an unfortunate loss for the theater department.

“The Last Five Years” will continue at 7:30 p.m. tonight and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

Pictured at top: The two casts of University Theatre’s production of “The Last Five Years” is, at left, John Bearss and Lacey Farina, opening night Thursday and Feb. 18; and, at right, Lauren Ladd and Mitchell Sharp, tonight and Feb. 19.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.