BWW Review: THE LAST FIVE YEARS at WaterTower Theatre

BWW Review: THE LAST FIVE YEARS at WaterTower Theatre
Seth Womack and Monique Abry
Photo by Jason Anderson
Costumes by Sylvia Fuhrken

Composer and prodigy Jason Robert Brown made his mark in the theatre world with his debut song cycle, SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD, which played Off-Broadway in 1995 and continues to be produced by/for theatre enthusiasts. And, although he's since had a handful of celebrated, yet unsuccessful Broadway attempts (THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, 13, HONEYMOON IN VEGAS), it's his two-person musical THE LAST FIVE YEARS that is most often seen onstage across the globe. But does the small show survive when stripped of its intimate nature, as in the production currently playing at WaterTower Theatre? The tough answer is both yes and no.

The two-person, one-act musical is a roller coaster of young love between an up-and-coming author and a hopeful actress. Told mostly through song, Jamie (the male)'s story follows a linear path: boy meets girls, falls in love, marries and divorces. However, the unique plot device employed is that his partner Cathy takes the stage every other song, with her path progressing backward, her songs starting at the breakup and ending as she first falls in love. As often directed, and arguably as written, the pair shares the stage only in the middle, where their paths meet momentarily for their wedding.

WaterTower Theatre's production, directed by WTT's Associate Artistic Director Kelsey Leigh Ervi, takes a brave, if not risky approach by forcing the characters onstage during their partners' every moment. While this perhaps furthers the audience's understanding of the dynamics between the pair, the change often leads to distracting and unnecessary miming by one actor during their partner's songs, left without the opportunity to utter a word. And while the inclusion of the onstage band provides several humorous moments and allows the audience to more greatly appreciate the six players, their use does tend to distort both the intimacy between the two actors, as well as the deep connection typically shared between Jamie or Cathy and the audience. Ervi's restructuring of the show might lead unfamiliar ticket buyers into assuming that THE LAST FIVE YEARS is a series of musical vignettes, but her astute ability to guide actors to great emotional heights cannot be overlooked.

Seth Womack, who recently turned heads with his captivating performance in Ervi's concert staging of PARADE, stars as Jaime. He unpacks an effecting emotional punch in his renditions of "Nobody Needs to Know," and "If I Didn't Believe in You," yet manages to bring the audience to stitches with "The Schmuel Song". On opening night, Womack adapted a lyric or two too many into spoken dialogue, but his apparent musical skill turned out many impressive moments.

Opposite Womack is Monique Abry as Cathy. Abry relocated to New York City from Dallas not long ago, but has been warmly welcomed back into town several times, most notably for her standout performance in Dallas Theatre Center's HAIR. With Abry's role being heavily inspired by composer Brown's ex-wife, the role can (in the wrong hands) easily come across as clingy, desperate and hopeless. But Abry's honest approach to both her character's career and relationship challenges helps us see and feel for Cathy's many struggles. And when she belts out her highest notes (especially in "I Can Do Better Than That"), her vocals cannot be beat.

Adam C. Wright's expertise is evident no matter where on stage you may look. He and his band may be disbursed throughout the cramped scenery, but they never miss a beat of Jason Robert Brown's famously challenging score, and their sound is unbeatable. And although Womack and Abry balance the scripted onstage chemistry, Wright is undeniably an equal contributor.

Now, if you haven't seen the musical nearly a dozen times like I have (in different stagings across the country), perhaps you'll connect with this approach more closely than I did. But, will the unwitting audience member clearly see the alternating timelines and the sense of emptiness each character eventually feels with this modified staging? I would not assume so. Still, there's a lot to love about the performance by this talented team, and there are at least a few moments every broken heart can relate to.

THE LAST FIVE YEARS runs on the Canterbury Family Main Stage at Addison's WaterTower Theatre now through July 1st. Tickets and more information can be found at www.watertowertheatre.org.

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From This Author Kyle Christopher West

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