Can I Be Sappy?

By Maya ChenJune 10, 2024

Can I Be Sappy?
THE LAST FIVE YEARS, Sierra Madre Playhouse, Sierra Madre, May 17–June 16, 2024.

Seven years ago, I made a single friend during freshman orientation. We bonded over having no other friends, liking the beach and the Head and the Heart’s “Rivers and Roads,” and being mutually obsessed with Jason Robert Brown’s 2002 Off-Broadway musical The Last Five Years. Hers stemmed from the 2014 movie adaptation starring Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick; mine was from my 2012 Les Misérables–induced obsession with Aaron Tveit. The rest was history: we live together now. Since then, we’ve watched the movie several times and listened to the soundtrack at least a hundred times; The Last Five Years has quite literally scored our friendship.

On Friday, May 31, I speedwalked my way through the streets of Sierra Madre. I had parked possibly illegally, but that didn’t matter—The Last Five Years at the Sierra Madre Playhouse was starting in eight minutes, and this was a show that I wasn’t, under any circumstance, going to miss a second of. In my last Short Take, covering Funny Girl at the Ahmanson Theatre, I marveled at the intense, palpable excitement that possessed the audience. Reader, allow me to eat my words, for that enraptured audience was me and my friends this time.

When I walked in, I saw that 96 of the 99 seats were filled, largely by older audience members, friends of the cast, and my two friends. My orientation friend–turned-roommate was shaking in anticipation. The close quarters of the venue lent itself well to the intimate quality of the musical, as there are only two characters, Cathy and Jamie, and they largely sing separately across the entire runtime. Throughout the show, just one or both of them were present onstage, accompanied by a five-piece orchestra. The story traces the rise and fall of a five-year relationship—for Jamie, the plot progresses from his first date with Cathy to him leaving her, whereas for Cathy, everything happens in reverse chronological order.

On this night, our Cathy and Jamie were solidly played by Margaret Berkowitz and Bryan Mittelstadt. Mittelstadt in particular was an excellent Jamie, playing him as earnest, open-hearted, frustrated, weary, and guilty. I had only listened to Cynthia Erivo and Joshua Henry’s renditions of the musical’s songs and watched the 2014 film adaptation, so I had no idea what the actual live production would be like. Typically, Jamie is read as more at fault than Cathy, even villainous at times—he cheats on her, leaves her behind, and is too caught up in his own rising star. But in Mittelstadt’s rendition, I saw a Jamie that was genuine, who truly believes in Cathy but is ultimately pushed away by her own personal frustrations. Is it cringe to say his performance of “The Schmuel Song,” which is approximately seven minutes long, mostly spoken-word, and (usually) hated by my friend, brought the two of us to tears? My friend is what we call a Jamie Defender (she, like Jamie, is a writer) and in this production, I understood.

Where the movie reads as the bittersweet rise and fall of a relationship, the actual stage production reveals the songs as reflections of both characters’ self-perceptions and inward frustrations, a testament to the staging in which Cathy and Jamie act independently of each other throughout most of the play. Cathy’s songs aren’t really about Jamie or her relationship with Jamie, but rather about her own fears and anger with her stagnant career, and Jamie’s are about his own preoccupations with his burgeoning career and desire to embrace that self-satisfaction. I know it’s rote to exalt the power of live musical theater, but one really cannot be satisfied by cast recording alone.

The show ended, and my friend was sobbing in her seat. Everyone was walking out, and it was somehow unbelievably hot in the theater, but she couldn't stop crying. I wanted to cry a little too. She’s been one of my best friends for seven years, and my roommate for three, but in one month, she’s moving out. We’ve seen each other grow from teenagers to full-on adults, listening to this one musical the whole time—and at long last, we’ve finally seen it together. Can I be sappy? The Last Five Years at the Sierra Madre Playhouse was good, but the last seven years have been even better.

¤


Photo by contributor.

LARB Short Takes live event reviews are published in partnership with the nonprofit Online Journalism Project and the Independent Review Crew.

LARB Contributor

Maya Chen (she/her) is the social media director/list-maker for Los Angeles Review of Books.

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