Back when The Other Palace was The St. James’s Theatre, it hosted a seriously successful production of The Last Five Years. Four years later, and it is more than the name of the theatre that’s changed, and Jason Robert Brown’s musical returns, this time to the ‘virtual stage’ of The Other Palace. Theatre’s are closed, and the race is on to find a sustainable alternative to live performance, Lambert Jackson Productions comes out the gate early with this pre-recorded, fully staged (as far as possible) production.
Unlike similar streams, audiences buy a ticket for a specific showing, and just like going to the theatre (remember that!) it’s necessary to watch at the actual performance time. It goes someway to help create that shared sense of experience so often lacking from our new online theatrical world.
Filmed in lockdown, it is one of the few musicals where having its stars in isolation can actually work to the production’s advantage. While it tells the story of a five year relationship, the characters meet only once in the middle. Jamie’s story moves forward in time, beginning with the fresh flushes of a relationship and an upcoming successful career as an author. Cathy’s story, on the other hand, begins at the end of the relationship and works backwards, taking in her own career success story.
It means every song is sung individually (save for that meeting point), each one a little vignette of an important moment in an ill-fated relationship. How much the musical says about a relationship has long been debated, its structure means the focus is often on the characters themselves as opposed to the situation they find themselves in, but Jason Robert Brown’s score is varied enough to give the characters sufficient depth.
Where the St. James’s production of The Last Five Years was directed by its composer, this version is directed by one of its stars, Lauren Samuels. As Cathy, Samuels is outstanding, her opening number is tentative and poignant, before moving on to those more rousing numbers like ‘Summer in Ohio’ and ‘Climbing Uphill’. Co-star Danny Becker is equally charming as Jamie; an animated ‘The Schmuel Song’ is closely followed with a delicately exquisite ‘The Next Ten Minutes’.
As director, Samuels has teased out a convincing bond between Cathy and Jamie, despite the physical separation. The ‘staging’ is fantastically done, with both Samuels and Becker providing costumes and sets (presumably from what they had available in their lockdown location). When the script calls for Jamie to tell a story at Christmas time, Becker provides a fully decorated tree in the front room, while Samuels ensures Cathy can attend a glamourous party as well as the audition room.
We can only assume Musical Director, Joshua Winston, wasn’t in the room with either Samuels or Becker, so whatever tech wizardry has gone on behind the scenes to make it all sound so flawless has to be commended. There are some odd choices in the way some of the elements have been edited, but on the whole, it’s been lovingly pulled together.
The Last Five Years is in no way a new musical, but here it is presented in an entirely new way. While we all dream of the day we can be back in a physical theatre, we may have to accept this is what’s in store for the foreseeable future, and if that’s the case, Lambert Jackson Productions have set a high standard for others to follow.