Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Last Five Years: Utah Repertory Theater Company

Every story is told from the point of view of the person sharing the story.  Utah Repertory Theater Company shares with us a musical masterpiece of composer Jason Robert Brown in The Last Five Years.  Audiences experience a love story, told alternately through the eyes of Jamie and Cathy, Jamie recalling from the beginning of the relationship, Cathy from the end, and meeting in the middle.   

Utah Rep's website sums up our characters best: "Jamie Wellerstein (Rhett Richins) is a young, talented up-and-coming Jewish novelist who falls in love with Cathy Hiatt (Erin Royall Carlson), a struggling actress and shiksa goddess."   Audiences spend the next hour and a half with the talents of Richins and Carlson alone on stage, as directed by John Sweeney.

Rhett Richins' nuances as Jamie Wellerstein were natural, convincing, and often hilarious.  He conveyed every nuance of an emotion through one simple look, one pronunciation.  I loved the way he wove accents in and out of his singing as he talked about his Jewish mother and an old clock maker named Schmuel.  Actors are often directed that every movement has a purpose, which Richins personifies as he tells a story in each look, movement, and musical note. 

Erin Royall Carlson as Cathy Hiatt evoked a strong stoicism and warped sense of humor that being a theater professional requires.  We see such weight on her shoulders as she begins the show at the end of her story and relationship, with each scene seemingly lifting off another emotional brick to unveil the light, energetic, radiant Cathy that Jamie fell in love with. 

Live orchestrations grant these two performers the ability to interpret the lyrics and musicality with emotion and depth, helping transfer those feelings to the audience.  Music director, Anne Puzey, created a remarkable atmosphere with her ensemble of talented musicians.  Composer Jason Robert Brown is known for intricate work, and these musicians created a feeling of intricacy that could have shared the story even if the songs had no lyrics.   

The set, lighting, and sound were all very simply designed as we focused on a three-point turning set piece in the middle of the stage, with side pieces and use of shadows to direct or focus to a certain character or scene.  I agree with these decisions strongly, as this story is about two people and their relationship, stripped bare of the world around them.  

Watching the decisions of Jamie and Cathy, my heart wrenched with the agony of my own choices and where they were leading my life and the life of my relationships.  Cathy and Jamie made these seemingly insignificant choices that became more and more substantial until their relationship was ruined.  We can choose our path, but we cannot choose our consequences.  I became keenly aware of how important each moment is.  When Jamie asks Cathy if she will share her life with him for the next ten minutes, then ten more minutes, I thought about how many times the present ten minutes would not leave my friend or husband to ask me for another ten minutes. Jamie gifts Cathy a watch at one point, saying, "You get to be happy...I give you unlimited time."  Watching The Last Five Years stress the importance of time and its correlation with happiness drives home the invaluable importance of every moment.  It's in the moments that life is made or broken.

As a passionate theater-goer, yet not someone who researches beyond plot-points to the intricate nuances of a show before I attend, I can confidently say that The Last Five Years can be confusing even if you know there are two timelines that meet in the middle.  Perhaps a talkback session would have explained the answer to our questions, but my companion and I both had a difficult time understanding why there would be a Jamie scene where he is singing to Cathy and she is present, then the next Jamie scene where he is singing to Cathy, she is not present.  We didn't notice a correlation between his temperament or the stage of their relationship and her presence or lack thereof.  The one correlation we found was between her presence/his presence and costume changes.  For such a minimalistic production, the elaborate costume changes seemed a bit much.  Yes, it did help tell the story and create clear "this is a different scene" moments, but I would have liked to see both characters on stage at all times (which I know is more exhausting than a marathon for performers), with simple costume changes, like the addition of a jacket, a change of shoes, a scarf, etc.  This would have fit the overall minimalistic feel for me.  I also wondered if perhaps the age in the lyrics could have been changed to more accurately reflect the age of the performers. 

Some of you may question whether to see the live theater production or the movie that is hitting wide-release in theaters.  My suggestion is you must see both.  There is beautiful story-telling in the movie, however, live theater has an electricity in the air that makes the experience undeniably more real.  The raw vibrancy of a person standing in front of you shedding real tears and real sweat while singing their heart out to you, to tell you a story, cannot be recreated on film.

If you have a heart, it will break watching Utah Rep's performance of The Last Five Years - it will break with joy, mourning, inspiration, and appreciation of the beautiful work of art in front of you.  You will see scenes from your own relationships played out before you, giving you the cherished feelings of each loving moment while your gut wrenches with pangs from loss.  Should you choose to use your time at The Last Five Years, that time will be incredibly well spent.  As Jamie sings, "Take a breath.  Take a step.  Take a chance." 

The Last Five Years runs at various times, with varying admission prices, until March 15 at Sugar Space Studio Theater in Sugarhouse, then March 20-22 at the Ziegfeld Theatre in Ogden.  Please refer to the website for more information.  Please also note that the movie version of this production is rated PG-13 for language and adult themes, which echoes the stage production. 

Image from Utahrep.org

*Disclaimer*  I've heard it said, and fully agree, "Reviewers don't write about theater, they write about themselves at the theater." 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Larissa:
I happened onto your review and wanted to comment on a few of your thoughts. I saw Last 5 Years over the weekend as well and loved it!!! I just loved the way Jamie started out being 23, with little or no money, and being transformed into a 28 year old with money, fame, making some interesting choices. I liked how that character progression was evident visually. I loved how Cathy started out being older, sad, confused, at the end of her marriage and progressing backwards to being younger and excited about the possibilities of a wonderful future. With her look, I got that and how we change over the years with age and social/economic status. I don't think I have anything I wore 5 years ago or very few pieces. My style has changed so drastically and that is what I got from the transformation of Jamie and Cathy. Loved it!!!
Thank you for your thoughts…gave me something to really think about. Haven't stopped thinking about the emotional impact it had on me. You are awesome!!!