BWW Reviews: Dual Stories in LAST FIVE YEARS Delivered with Mixed Results
They say there are two sides to every story. It's certainly true of love stories, as composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown explores in his two person song cycle, The Last Five Years. The musical, which has become a veritable cult phenomenon among musical theater junkies, brilliantly juxtaposes the points of view of lovers Jamie and Cathy in the five years between their first date to the day they get divorced. What makes the piece so intriguing is how it's told. The pair alternate solo songs with Cathy telling her version of the story backwards while Jamie tells his version forward. They meet in the middle, and share their only duet, on their wedding day.
Penfold Theatre Company's production echoes the duality of the piece, but not in the best of ways. While there is one incredible performance and a few strong creative choices, the production is hampered by one performer who seems uncomfortable and at odds with the piece and direction and design that doesn't adequately serve the musical.
The best asset of the production is, without a shred of doubt, Sara Burke as Cathy. As she tells her story backwards, her job is much harder than her counterparts as she can't explore her character arc in a natural fashion. Nevertheless, Burke mines the character for all she's worth and highlights Cathy's joys, sorrows, anger, doubt, and self-loathing to create a character who is human, relatable, and absolutely captivating. Burke also plays with the intimacy of the Trinity Street Theater quite well. Her performance is nuanced and understated which constantly draws the audience in. The same can be said of the overall music direction of the show. Director/Music Director Michael McKelvey has opted to streamline the five person orchestrations to just a piano and a violin and has wisely chosen to stage the show unamplified. Those choices highlight just how intimate, haunting, and beautiful Jason Robert Brown's score is.
Sadly, McKelvey doesn't fare so well as Director, a shocking statement to make considering how most of his trips to the director's chair lead to some of the best musicals produced in Austin. The biggest problem with his direction is the stale staging. Most of Cathy's songs are played with her standing downstage left while Jamie often delivers his downstage right. The lack of variety in staging is problematic, and the placement of the actors, when paired with the thrust-style seating in the Trinity Street Theater, means that many in the audience rarely get a good look at the faces of the two performers.
The set design, by David Utley, doesn't do the show any favors, either. Utley's fully realized studio apartment set, complete with a kitchen that the characters never use, is beyond pointless and confusing, especially when only a handful of the show's 16 songs actually take place in the apartment. It's hard to hear lyrics like, "I can't believe you really came and that we're sitting on this pier" when the actress delivering the lyrics is sitting on the edge of a bed. This show can, and probably should, be done without a set at all. It's not about where these characters are but what they are feeling, and Utley's set distracts from the emotions rather than enhancing them.
Still, the most puzzling disappointment of the production is David Gallagher as Jamie. Gallagher, who starred as Jamie in Penfold's first production of The Last Five Years, seems completely uncomfortable and miscast as the New York Jewish goofball/novelist. Rather than playing to the space like Burke, Gallagher goes over the top, especially during his comedic numbers, making all of his choices ring false. While there's an honesty to what Burke brings to Cathy, there's no honesty or authenticity to be found in Gallagher's Jamie. We're constantly reminded of an actor acting, and acting rather poorly, all of which is amplified when there's nothing and no one to compare him to but Burke.
In this round of Cathy vs. Jamie, Cathy delivers the K.O.
THE LAST FIVE YEARS, produced by Penfold Theatre, plays the Trinity Street Theatre (901 Trinity Street, 4th Floor, Austin 78701) now thru April 12th. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 5pm. Tickets are $20 regular, $18 students/seniors. For tickets and information, please visit www.penfoldtheatre.org