By: Meaghan Brackenbury

With its competing chronologies, musical storytelling, and a cast of only two people, The Last Five Years is a play that demands nothing less than the utmost attention to detail in order to properly explore the intricacies of the plot. The story revolves around Cathy and Jaimie, a young couple who are simultaneously experiencing the throes of young love and the heartbreak of a crumbling marriage. Supportive but frustrated actress Cathy’s tale begins at the end of their five years together and works its way backward, while idealistic but brash writer Jaimie has just met Cathy at the beginning of the show. Orpheus Musical Theatre’s rendition of this Broadway musical favourite certainly brought the heart it needed to get it off the ground, however, it took the performance a few songs to break into its full stride.

Perhaps the pinnacle of creativity within this particular production was the set and its function throughout the show. As the audience enters the house, the two actors, Ottawa residents Michelle Gendron and Louie Rossetti, are sitting at a table in front of a white wall with numerous cubbies. Rossetti, as Jaimie, types away on a laptop, while Gendron, as Cathy, sits with a letter in hand, looking sadly at the audience members entering the room. The brilliance of this staging decision only becomes clear at the end of the show. There is a distinct split in the stage – one side is Cathy’s, and the other is Jaime’s: the two parts linked together only by a ladder that the actors slide back and forth throughout the duration of the show, signifying the tug and pull of their contentious relationship.

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Photography by Maria Vartanova

A simple use of lights on either side of the set also signifies the gradual change in emotion and tone for each character. As Jaimie sings of his success with his manuscript and his elation over falling in love with Cathy, his side of the stage is lit with a warm orange glow. Meanwhile, Cathy sits alone, dejected, and broken-hearted after reading a letter Jaimie wrote before he left her, washed in a cold white light. These lights shift throughout the entirety of the play as Cathy walks backwards through time to her happier days, while Jaimie becomes increasingly disillusioned with their relationship as time wears on. These quiet yet explanative design choices make what could be a fragmented show a more cohesive, exploratory piece of theatre.

However, for all the bells and whistles the set and lighting designers employ the weight of the show invariably rests on the shoulders of our two protagonists. As stage director Kodi Cannon said in his director’s note: “At its core, this musical is about the human condition.”

This was certainly the zeitgeist that Orpheus’ creative team relied on. As the same story is told from different perspectives within one fluid space, the characters rarely interact with each other, only truly engaging with each other as their stories align in the middle in a short but tender wedding scene. This allowed the audience to truly digest the complexity a single experience can have when explored through both sides. We began by feeling sorry for Cathy and resenting the flippant actions of Jaimie, and we ended feeling a little less sure, a little more torn as a desperate Jaimie feels his only option is to write Cathy a note and flee.

For the actors’ part, both Gendron and Rossetti showed remarkable stamina to be singing continually for an hour and a half while delivering emotional performances and maintaining a strong stage presence. The play began in a bit of a shaky manner as Gendron’s quintessential opening number “Still Hurting” had a few glimpses of beginning-of-show-nerves. Furthermore, while Gendron and Rossetti seemed to have a strong grasp of their characters separately, their chemistry isn’t quite there when they meet in the middle of each other’s storylines. However, as the show continues, and more emotional complexity is layered in with each song, the actors begin to connect more with the audience so that by the end, we are completely absorbed in the devastating conclusion of both characters.

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Photography by Maria Vartanova

By the time the piece reaches its heartbreaking culmination, both Cathy and Jaimie have fully explored their characters’ emotional arcs within the last five years of their time together. The audience has sorted through a delicate storyline alongside the play and in simple but nonetheless clever staging the actors end up on opposite side of which they started with Cathy reading the regretful note and Jaimie absorbed in his computer. These actions are given a whole new context and meaning as we now understand the turmoil that has brought each character to this point, and in a production which effectively highlights the insecurities and frustrations of the characters, we can’t help but feel completely and irrevocably sympathetic to this display of the human condition.

The Last Five Years

Written and Composed by Jason Robert Brown

Presented by Orpheus Musical Theatre Society

Featuring: Michelle Gendron and Louie Rossetti

Stage Direction by Kodi Cannon

Musical Direction by Wendy Berkelaar

Apprentice Music Director……………………………………….Skye MacDiarmid
Executive Producer……………………………………………………….Jenn Donnelly
Producer………………………………………………………………………Ashley Cannon
Production Assistant…………………………………………………….Ashley Cannon
Stage Manager…………………………………………………………………Maritie Lord
Co-set designers……………………………..Graham Galway and Kodi Cannon
Lighting Designer…………………………………………………………….Don Douglas
Sound Designer…………………………………………………………..Justin Ladelpha
Rehearsal Accompanist…………………………………………….Wendy Berkelaar
Audition Accompanist………………………………………………………..Ruth Kwan


Meaghan Brackenbury is currently a Journalism and Human Rights student at Carleton University in Ottawa, ON. She loves all things reading, writing, and drama related, which makes theatre criticism the perfect fit. In the future, she hopes to continue writing and watching theatre while traveling the globe. You can check out more of Meaghan’s writing here.

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