Revitalized through a genderbending of characters, BareStage Productions showcased a marvelous queer version of the off-Broadway musical “The Last Five Years” from Thursday to Sunday. With merely three shows, each depicting a different same-sex couple, every performance shined a special light on the peculiar relationship between a writer and an actor and their failed marriage throughout the course of five years. The opening night performance, starring Juan Castro Cruz as Jamie Wellerstein and Ethan Brown as Cody Hiatt, was a remarkable feat, demonstrating the unfortunately uncommon vitality of love.
Considering theater’s history of casting only males to play all roles, it was moving to witness Barestage Productions rewrite gendered roles to tell an unobstructed tale about the universality of love. Consequently, Cruz and Brown weren’t oblivious to the gateways opened by the opportunity to play a gay couple, committing heavily to the investigation of gender as performance by adding their own individual flair to their respective characters. This version of “The Last Five Years” allowed its leads to escape the boxes of the musical’s original casting. While playing Jamie and Cody, Cruz and Brown separated themselves from the standards of masculinity and its confining connections to heterosexuality.
Each actor portrayed their characters’ singular perspectives as the musical’s narrative progressed, channeling the swoons and sorrows of every musical number. The storyline of “The Last Five Years” can be challenging to portray believably, as the musical’s near-absence of dialogue requires the cast to rely on musical numbers and emotional beats to sell the narrative. Cruz and Brown embraced this challenge, however. The actors rarely missed a beat, as their performances made it simple for audiences to track the plot movements within the lyrics while simultaneously bringing delightful charm to the pieces.
Typically, live performances of “The Last Five Years” rely enormously on some tough instrumentals for capturing transitions, humor and the core of its central relationship, and BareStage’s outstanding orchestra delivered. Although the orchestra was placed at center stage, it blended into the background fluidly as its music transported viewers into a place where two strangers suddenly became the most important people in the world. The audience’s attention was utterly fixed on the presence of an intimate union. Director Zachary Manlapid conducted the orchestra with vigor, bringing his cultivated vision not only to the musical’s narrative, but also to the poetic music guiding and nurturing it.
Multiple solo numbers from each of the leads in “The Last Five Years” allowed substantial room for interpretation and nuance. Each actor created a one-of-a-kind portrait of their character onstage, but Cruz especially gave spectacular solos. Cruz crafted a new persona for Jamie, yet still fit effortlessly into the existing mold of the musical. In Cruz’s renditions of “Moving Too Fast” and “The Schmuel Song,” he squeezed out all the flavors with panache and, though the set was rather bare, Cruz’s exuberant prancing seemed to fill the whole stage.
The book for “The Last Five Years” spends most of its stamina on moments in which both partners are separated, as the characters each take turns venturing into the struggles and joys of their marriage. But in a critical wedding scene, the audience is allowed to see the main couple physically encounter one another for the first time onstage. At this point in the production, the synergy of Cruz and Brown was revealed and the result lacked a certain familiarity and ease. The actors’ physicality exuded tentativeness instead of tenderness, leaving an underwhelming sense of the visual companionship between them. The seeming lack of commitment from Cruz and Brown at this moment struck a discordant note in the growing manifestation of their characters’ relationship.
Nonetheless, BareStage Productions’ adaptation of “The Last Five Years” was a dazzling representation of queer relationships. This version of the musical contributed to reforming past ideas regarding the existence, visibility and validity of LGBTQ+ performances. Here’s hoping for more.
Cameron Opartkiettikul covers theater. Contact him at [email protected].