Review: The Last Five Years – zesty award-winning musical- on stage in Cape Town with knockout six piece ensemble

What: The Last Five Years – the award winning musical by Jason Robert Brown
When: March 29 to April 9, 2022 at 8pm
Where: Theatre on the Bay, Cape Town
Direct booking link:
Starring: Anthony Downing and Zoë McLaughlin
Director: Paul Griffiths
Musical director: Jaco Griessel

Set design: Jaco Griessel and  Zoë McLaughlin
Lighting design: Jaco Griessel

On-stage musicians- six piece ensemble:

Jaco Griessel (piano) Rayelle Goodman (violin), Dane Coetzee (cello 1), Rina Schutte (cello 2), Graeme Lees (guitar) and C.J. Duckitt (bass guitar)        
Producer: Tally Ho! Productions

Ahh, it was thrilling to see The Last Five Years, Jason Robert Brown’s award winning musical, finally on stage in Cape Town, at the beautiful Theatre on the Bay. The production was about to go on stage in March 2020 and then Covid shuttered the season. The crew has already been in rehearsal for over a week, gearing and setting up. It feels like I have been waiting for the last two years to see The Last Five Years. The season kept on being postponed- for two years- and here we are – March-April 2022- live on stage.  Zoë McLaughlin is enchanting and sassy as Cathy Hiatt, an actress who yearns for a lucky break. She quick changes into an array of fabulous outfits, which heighten her trajectory as a character – aiming for the big time but having to make do with a boring day job. Anthony Downing is a spirited Jamie Wellerstein, a novelist who is on the verge of success. The narrative is unspooled from different perspectives. Cathy provides her side, from the termination of the relationship to how it first began. Jamie relates his story chronologically. They intersect briefly- in the middle of the musical- at their wedding. The two protagonists are together on stage, but apart, in their own bubbles, except for the one point of connectivity.

The six piece ensemble – sitting on the stage- is a treat- a knockout. Jaco Griessel is at the piano. He is musical director AND he is producer, under the helm of Tally Ho! Productions. He has also designed the set, with McLaughlin. The Last Five Years, premiered in 2001 at The Northlight Theatre in Chicago and a year later, was staged Off-Broadway. That was before widespread use of mobile phones. In terms of design, the look is retro with a rotary dialling phone and a typewriter that goes clackety clack. I like it that there are no mobile phones, interrupting the flow of the narratives and distracting from the sung-through stories. Griesel mused in an interview with TheCapeRobyn, March 2020 []: “By having them tell the story episodically without the other one there, the disconnection between them is highlighted.” Their individual pod spaces are heightened by lighting and costume changes. They are each in their own trajectories and no matter how they would like a perfect ending, they cannot get in synch with each other. The Last Five Years is a poignant, wistful and edgy two-hander musical with a fabulous ensemble. The music is wondrous.  With lockdown restrictions still in place and limited seating, who knows when we will see big musicals on stage and it is wonderful to see this rom-com musical on stage.

I have some reservations regarding Jason Robert Brown’s use of words in his script and some may take offense. I will explain: Brown (an American), comes from a Jewish background and has based the character of Jamie Wellerstein on himself.  Jamie uses the word for a non-Jewish person, which begins with a G** and S****h for a non-Jewish woman. These Yiddish words have become widely regarded as offensive, as racial slurs, in a South African context. So much, so, that I am not writing them in full. The S****h word also has unpleasant connotations of referring to a domestic worker, in a South African context.  Brown evokes the S****h word in a song in the musical. The S****h Goddess. Regarding intent and context, in this musical, the words are not used in a hurtful or derogatory way. Jamie is being self-deprecatory. It is funny and light. There is lovely humour. It is funny and entertaining. However, the use of these words, made me feel uncomfortable. In my interview, in 2020, with Griesel, before I had seen the musical [], I raised the issue of cutting these references and he said: “I’ve always opposed the idea of sanitising texts because of some offense that might be taken, as it usually happens at the cost of diluting the truthfulness of a narrative that is every bit as messy and offensive as real life. The song Sh*** Goddess, by including derogatory Yiddish terms, gives insight into both Jamie Wellerstein’s background as well as his state of mind. It reveals both his background as an obedient and slightly coddled Jewish boy from a strict orthodox family, at conflict with wanting to be authentic to the man he himself wants to be. Referring to Cathy as a Sh***h reveals both how much his family would disapprove and that he fully understands just how much they would disapprove and how little he cares. To Jamie, Cathy represents rebellion, excitement and the new.”

Bravo to Tally Ho! Productions for bringing us this zesty award-winning musical to the theatre, in Covid, with a knockout six piece ensemble and two talented performers, who sing through their longing for love and a happy ending.  

Upbeat: Anthony Downing as Jamie Wellerstein in The Last Five Years, produced by Tally Ho! Productions, at Theatre on the Bay, Cape Town, March 29 to April 9, 2022.

❇ Zoë McLaughlin as Cathy Hiatt, in The Last Five Years, produced by Tally Ho! Productions, at Theatre on the Bay, Cape Town, March 29 to April 9, 2022. Images supplied. Related coverage on TheCapeRobyn: