BWW Review: THE LAST FIVE YEARS at Music Theatre Of Connecticut
If you want to know the "cut to the chase" review, it's: Go. See. This. Show. You can skip to the end to find the details about dates, times and ticket acquisition.
If you have the patience and/or interest to hear my review and learn a little about the cast and creative team, please read on.
Jason Robert Brown's THE LAST FIVE YEARS, debuted in Chicago in 2001, then came Off-Broadway in 2002, most recently finding new life in a 2014 film adaptation starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan. I have sung along with Sherie Rene Scott and Norbert Leo Butz on the Sh-K-Boom Records recording for years, have (unsuccessfully) auditioned for Cathy, and have had a year-long postponed date with a good friend to watch the film, but the bottom line is that this is a show I have been interested in for a long time. To add to the pressure on this MTC production, I brought a companion with me who had as much invested in the show as I. I can say that neither of us was disappointed.
Kevin Connors works his wonder, once again, at the helm of this two-person show. While a small cast production of a piece of musical theatre that most musical theatre actors already know - backwards and forwards, wink wink - may seem simple, the show itself is as complicated as its score. With very little dialogue, a short rehearsal process, and an intricate story to tell, there is much more to it than meets the eye. In my opinion, Mr. Connors' vision was perfection.
This is the last show in MTC's 29th season and there is not one second of the 90-ish minutes that disappoints. The pace is brisk, the orchestra is sublime, the singing is spectacular, the lights by Joshua Scherr are subtle and effective, the acting is outstanding - all of which keeps the average audience member at the edge of his/her seat, with no desire for the non-existent intermission. Rather than milk its time on stage, this musical, and the team behind it, tells a fulfilling story in a powerfully concise way.
Jennifer Malenke plays Cathy, an aspiring actress who has fallen in love with novelist Jamie, played by Nicolas Dromard. Her story moves backwards while his moves forward, exploring the many stages of a relationship, into and out of marriage. Since this creative vehicle is the crux of this show, I won't go too much into that, but I can say that the performances are powerful, energetic, pitch-perfect, and engaging.
Nolan Bonvouloir leads the music direction for the actors, but also conducts the seamlessly melded orchestra - lovely Rebekah Butler on violin, charming Charlie Rasmussen on cello, passionate Mike Godette on guitar, and a precise Mr. Bonvouloir, playing a grand piano while leading this band of talented musicians. Speaking of music, Sarah Pelo, did an amazing job with the theatre's 2-year old, state of the art sound system, allowing every word the actors sang to be heard in a perfect mix with the on-stage orchestra.
I must admit, the iconic opening number sung by Cathy, Still Hurting, initially threw me for a loop. The beautiful and statuesque Ms. Malenke made this song her own, clearly different from Ms. Scott's recording, and from my own knowledge, definitively not according to the notes written by Mr. Brown. Her recitative, however was impassioned and clearly motivated - especially with such a difficult scene being the entry point for the audience. By Cathy's second song, See I'm Smiling, I WAS smiling, as her song-as-a-monologue style won me over. Her acting choices were clear, her large blue eyes were expressive, and her throaty belt grew on me, so that by the show's end, I was in love with the character she created on stage, both cheering for her and feeling her pain, all at once.
Speaking of loving characters, Jamie is a difficult character for the audience to like, but Mr. Dromard certainly gave it the old college try. I'm not sure if he succeeded in creating a compassionate character, but he sure did create a memorable one. His vocals were on-point and his energy was through the roof, whether he was jumping over set pieces, or twerking in a Christmas yarmulke.
Diane Vanderkroef helped to define these different, and sometimes clashing, personalities through her costume choices. Cathy spent most of the show in Bohemian-inspired garb, whether it be long, tattered-hem dresses or a shorter, flowing tunic with shorts, all accompanied by a pair of beige suede booties, complete with hippie fringe. Even a certain dress smack-dab in the middle of the show had a lovely care-free vibe. These choices really added to Cathy's free-spirited personality, while showing off Ms. Malenke's lithe body. Mr. Dromard's Jamie, in contrast, was more contemporary, either in well-fitting suits, casual designer shirts, or not much of anything at all.
As is typical in an MTC show, the Carl Tallent-designed set was minimalistic, with a perimeter of windows, a proscenium of industrial rigging, and simple, movable set pieces that, depending on the configuration, spelled out a "C", a "J", and a "5". Clever.
Interestingly enough, I noticed that this production included an updated song lyric that was included in the film, but obviously not possible in the original 2001 or 2002 incarnations of the show. I wonder if the choice to include Russell Crowe in this production was a directorial choice, or if the licensed show has been revised to reflect updated times.
Jason Robert Brown, with all of his contributions to modern musical theatre, still tends to err on the side of formula, with each song starting slowly, peaking into a whirlwind of high notes and orchestration, then falling back down to its soft landing. The progression of songs in this particular piece makes that formula even more obvious, but still, I believe the actors and musicians handled it with deftness, instead refocusing the audience back on the lyrics and the characters. Kudos.
In the end, this Jamie, with a tattoo on the back of his left calf and his promise to "never lie", still breaks the audience's heart, but he explains that he has to and needs "to be in love with someone," and with his beautiful voice, previously heard on Broadway as Tommy DeVito in Jersey Boys and Bert in Mary Poppins, we almost forgive him. Similarly, Ms. Malenke's Cathy shows her many sides, just like the actress herself, who not only has been seen in countless regional productions and on Broadway, but who is also the Founder and President of Broadway Babysitters, launching this Spring.
After the show, I had the honor of meeting many of these fine artists and chatting with them. The orchestra members were as lovely as the notes they played and the front-of-house staff were gracious hosts for the opening night party. In speaking with Mr. Dromard, he joked about his reincarnation of Tevye in The Schmuel Song and we chatted excitedly about our mutual friends. Speaking of "small world" occurrences, I learned that he and Ms. Malenke had actually met at the Tony Awards many years before they were destined to work together here at MTC. Additionally, Mr. Dromard's fiancée, Desiree Davar, is currently playing Irma in Anything Goes at Goodspeed Opera House, also in CT. The performances of both shows run concurrently, so they cannot see each other on stage, but Mr. Dromard took the time to drive up to East Haddam and surprise Ms. Davar after one of her performances - another advantage of the short running-time of The Last Five Years!
Ms. Malenke (as well as Mr. Dromard) could not stop gushing about the safe, supportive and creative environment that Mr. Connors and Jim Schilling, also doubling as Stage Manager, create at MTC. While it was the first time either actor had performed at that theatre, they both expressed their desire to return - not only for the "stress-free environment," but also for the easy commute for these NYC-based professionals. Ms. Malenke also offered this interesting nugget, speaking directly to Mr. Connors' insightful style of directing: the first table-read of the show was in chronological order. For those readers in the know, you should understand that impact. For those of you who don't understand that tid-bit, go see the show, then think about that.
Humble as ever, Mr. Connors, also the Executive Artistic Director of MTC, had to be prodded to talk about his favorite part of the process, as he clearly loved all of it and put his heart and soul out there on the stage. Finally, he admitted that after directing the show 8 years prior, he felt that he finally got The Schmuel Song right. He wanted to humanize Jamie in a way that hadn't been done before and Mr. Dromard gave him just the right inspiration. I tend to agree that he hit the nail on the head there.
Long story short, you need to go see this show. The Last Five Years runs through April 24th and tickets can be purchased at www.musictheatreofct.com. MTC is located in beautiful Norwalk, CT, surrounded by wonderful options for pre- and post-show dining.
MTC returns in September for it's 30th year of Professional Theatre in Connecticut, opening with a completely reimagined production of Gypsy, followed by Death Trap, It's a Wonderful Life, I'll Eat You Last, and End of the Rainbow. Subscriptions are available with wonderful perks including discounts and free exchanges. Additionally, MTC is currently running a bracelet fundraiser to offer classes to students from the Norwalk Housing Authority, creating a "passion for your stage and a stage for your passion." More information about subscriptions, season offerings, youth classes, and more at www.musictheatreofct.com.