“Oli Higginson as Jamie and Molly Lynch as Cathy are both outstanding: in their interpretation of the characters and musicianship”
On the surface, “The Last Five Years” has a kind of ‘Whovian’ concept at its heart, twisting the perspective of time. Two lovers, Jamie and Cathy, travel through five years of their relationship; he is moving forward while she proceeds in reverse. They meet in the middle, fleetingly, on their wedding day. Beneath the surface, though, is a very human story that deals with, not the time-warp perspectives, but the emotional perspectives of the two characters. It’s a device that gives you insider knowledge from the start (or the end) which simultaneously sheds light on the affair, but also pushes our emotional connection to their story into the shadows.
Director Jonathan O’Boyle has introduced a third character to the narrative: the baby grand piano that takes centre stage, around which Jamie and Cathy circle, powerless against its gravitational pull. Writer-composer Jason Robert Brown might have pulled off a neat trick with the dramatic concept, but O’Boyle’s decision to have the pair accompany one another’s songs on piano is inspired, and adds a much-needed dimension to what are essentially monologues in song. Songs which are nevertheless beautifully crafted by Brown, with a range of styles yet connected with common threads and leitmotifs.
Oli Higginson as Jamie and Molly Lynch as Cathy are both outstanding: in their interpretation of the characters and musicianship; using the piano as an emotional relay, often passing the baton between the bars of a tune. The opening “Still Hurting” shows off Lynch’s soaring and searing vocals in a heart-wrenching moment of resigned pain, while Higginson’s optimistic belt of “Moving Too Fast” encapsulates Jamie’s joyful optimism. Ninety minutes later Higginson beautifully mourns the ending of their story in “Nobody Needs to Know” while Lynch has usurped his dreams for the buoyant “I Can Do Better Than That”. In between, the pitch shifts are perfect as they advance and retreat along their own paths.
Which is the crux. Despite their onstage physical proximity, there is a detachment that leaves us slightly cold, which is entirely caused by the concept of the piece. It is quite easy to forget the characters are occupying different spaces and times, so it often feels that we are merely witnessing a couple who just aren’t suited to each other at all. He’s looking forward, she’s looking back, and their self-centredness strips us of sympathy. It is only when you make a conscious effort to return to the theme that you reconnect.
But the performers consistently manage to sweep this minor distraction away with the vivid brush strokes of their charisma and talent. Backed by the sheer energy of Musical Director, George Dyer, and the five-piece band, the music has us spellbound; even when the emotional magic doesn’t quite strike a chord.
“Guettel’s score is drenched in a lush, autumnal style, with orchestrations that are truly gorgeous”
The Light in the Piazza lands in its London premiere with a level of prestige – it scooped up no less than six Tony Awards during its Broadway run in 2005. While the musical consequently carries with it an inherent air of quality, it also finds itself emblematic of the genre as a whole, as it glosses over and romanticises subject matter which deserves a little more nuance.
Based on the 1960 novel by Elizabeth Spencer (which was also released as a film two years later), The Light in the Piazza follows the journey of Margaret Johnson (Renée Fleming), whose developmentally disabled daughter Clara (Dove Cameron) falls in love while the pair are on holiday in Florence with Fabrizio Naccarelli (Rob Houchen). Margaret grapples with letting go of her child and allowing her to live independently with Fabrizio, although in doing so she never fully discloses the nature of Clara’s disability to the Naccarelli family; it’s a decision that comes with huge ethical implications and ramifications, albeit ones that the show seems quite happy to ignore.
Adam Guettel’s score is drenched in a lush, autumnal style, with orchestrations that are truly gorgeous, and Kimberly Grigsby’s conducting makes the music feel like it fully lives and breathes with the characters and the story. Despite that the style starts to feel somewhat overfamiliar in the latter half the show, there are still a variety of hugely enjoyable numbers, such as Say It Somehow and Let’s Walk. Guettel’s lyrics and Craig Lucas’ libretto are full of quirks, wit, and humanity, but neither feel like they genuinely facilitate any true depth to the themes or characters. Despite this, there are some excellent performances on display in Piazza, particularly Fleming as Margaret, who keeps guilt and uncertainty bubbling underneath a frothy exterior, and Alex Jennings as Signor Naccarelli, whose charm and self-assuredness beautifully counterbalances the more melodramatic facets of the other characters. Every single member of the cast delivers immaculate vocals, and Robert Jones’ scenic design and Mark Henderson’s lighting harmoniously provide some stunning aesthetics. Piazza is undoubtedly a visual and aural treat.
However, the substance simply isn’t there to support it. Understanding and misunderstanding are prominent themes in Piazza – the Johnsons don’t speak great Italian and the Naccarellis don’t speak great English so their meanings aren’t always perfectly conveyed to each other, and some scenes and songs are entirely in Italian, so that the audience have to rely on the visual storytelling alone (which, thanks to Daniel Evans’ direction, is stellar). It suggests that the love between Clara and Fabrizio transcends barriers such as language or disability, but the fact that Fabrizio falls so swiftly for a woman with the mental and emotional capacities of a twelve-year-old draws allusions to the seedy over-sexualisation of young girls in society, and the fact that Fabrizio isn’t made aware of long-term effects that the disability will have on the relationship makes the romance feel unearned and untrue. And unfortunately, Piazza hinges itself on the romance.