BWW Review: THE LAST FIVE YEARS at Kent County Theatre Guild
Photo: Joshua Dinan as Jamie Wellerstein and Candice Alfonso as Cathy Hiatt in THE LAST FIVE YEARS.
Mother's Day 2019 was a rain-soaked day desperately in need of a distraction. What better way to chase away the gloom than to catch a musical which my husband and I enjoy while also visiting Kent County Theatre Guild for the first time. As I made the plans to attend, I let my husband know it would be the first time I reviewed the same show for different Delaware community theaters in the same year - four months to be precise. I noted that there were more than a handful of theaters within a generous radius from us producing The Last Five Years. During the drive to the theater, we opined on the possible reasons. The drive home clarified a few answers.
The Last Five Years is a chamber musical which has shifted from being a musical with a cult following to a mainstream offering with a growing audience. Given the relatively short run time (90 minutes without intermission), and the easily accessible storyline of boy meets girl, fall in love, get married, grow apart, and finally divorce, with a score full of memorable songs, being performed entirely by two performers, The Last Five Years is highlighted on a theater's "To Do" list as "low budget/low stress," "simple" or "easy" to present. And that is what my husband and I identified as the biggest pitfall when considering to produce this piece of musical theater. A two performer, minimal set, low tech musical with limited spoken dialog that can use tracked music has far more potential problems than the twenty person, live pit, two act song & dance holiday spectacular.
The Last Five Years lays bare the short-lived marriage of Jamie Wellerstein (Joshua Dinan) and Cathy Hiatt (Candice Alfonso) in a unique way. The story is told by Jamie in forward motion of time (from the first date to divorce) while Cathy tells the story in backwards motion of time (from divorce to first date). The parallel storytelling meets in the middle for their wedding. The characters weave their stories without the other being physically present on stage, except for their wedding, providing the audience with a side by side comparison of their lives from their respective point of view. The show also chronicles Jamie's professional success as a hot, young 20 something novelist and Cathy's failures with her aspiring acting career. Spousal jealousy and resentment occupy a significant amount of the story.
Perhaps the hurt and damage of such events are too real for some. That seemed the case for the creator, Jason Robert Brown, given the show is based upon his failed first marriage and his first wife's legal attempts to block its premiere. Keeping that tidbit in mind, it comes as no surprise that the character of Jamie is written in a more productive light, while Cathy leans into bitterness. At least that is the usual take on this piece. You can imagine my surprise when an audience member stated at the after-show meet & greet, "It was all Jamie's fault." I can see how one could arrive at that conclusion after seeing this production. While the two actors performing on KCTG's stage are talented enough, their portrayals of Jamie and Cathy fail to give rougher edges to their relationship. It's as if neither wanted to play the "bad guy." However, the duel motion storytelling of this piece requires it to have more weight in emotional scope to keep one interested. There's only two performers, each telling their story from their perspective, in opposite direction, with nothing to distract the viewer from the happenings on stage. This requires concentration and attention to detail from both sides of the stage, and more so from the actors if they want to achieve a full buy in from the audience as to their individual storytelling of occurring events. Both Ms. Alfonso and Mr. Dinan have lovely voices and adequate stage presence, they just don't dig in enough to the character's full range of emotions. Both my husband and I believe the two might have done better if the music were live as opposed to pre-recorded (electronic synth/MIDI/Garage Band) tracks. But, then again, I don't know where a pit band would fit in the limited space.
The one major setback to this production is the use of an intermission. It is not written for such to occur and completely takes audience members out of the moment. At first, I wasn't sure what was happening because it was raining heavily, and thought perhaps a weather event was at issue. When the usher came through asking if we wanted to buy 50/50 tickets, my husband's jaw dropped in disbelief. I'm not certain as to how many accomplished actors could recover the audience and rebuild the tension after that. Ms. Alfonso and Mr. Dinan did the best they could, but I never fully re-engaged.
Having heard the show several times with different performers, kudos to Ms. Alfonso for not scream/cry singing her way through the score. Her voice is sweet, sincere, and never tiring on the ears. I found myself waiting for her to come back on stage. Mr. Dinan also has a pleasant voice, with a warm timbre and agility to navigate the score and its higher range. The theater is small and intimate which made me wish body mics weren't used. I'd like to hear both artists unplugged at some point in their careers.
Stage Director, Kevin Smith, manages the actors' movements in and out of scenes well enough on the small(ish) stage, with subtle set changes by the crew. Mr. Smith made the most of the limited space to create defined acting areas. In addition to being a small, intimate theater, it is also filled with older lighting fixtures which limits capabilities of design. The choices by Lighting Designer, John Moller, were basic and serviceable in that no one was ever in the dark while active on stage, and the crew was not intrusively lit when changing set.
The Last Five Years is a show that should be included in everyone's "See It At Least Once" and "Listen To It All The Time" lists of musicals.
THE LAST FIVE YEARS
Written & Composed by Jason Robert Brown
Stage Director - Kevin Smith
Music Director - Chris Patterson
Kent Country Theatre Guild
140 Roosevelt Avenue
PO Box 783
Dover, DE 19903
Runs May 10 through May 18