BWW Review: An Elegant Revival of THE LAST FIVE YEARS Soars in La Mirada
Jason Robert Brown's THE LAST FIVE YEARS is the kind of musical you often find produced in small theaters and black boxes. Written for a cast of two, it can be done very simply without much in the way of a set or props making it a popular choice for those with a limited budget or other technical constraints.
The story follows a relationship from beginning to end in a series of alternating solo scenes - two different perspectives with two opposing timelines. Through Jamie's (Devin Archer) eyes, we see it grow from first blush to bitter separation while through Cathy's (Natalie Storrs) we watch it play out in reverse, from breakup to beginning. Only at a single point in the middle do their stories converge and we see them happy together before they move on again in the direction of their own narrative. As you'd expect, it is an emotional roller coaster no matter which way you look at it.
McCoy Rigby Entertainment and La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts have reimagined this gem of a musical in a wonderfully creative way and the result is truly something special. If you are one of the few who has not seen the show before, or if you've only seen it produced on a small scale, this is memorable work you don't want to miss.
They have a much larger stage and a greater set of resources at their disposal so the bar is already set higher. But it isn't about just making things bigger. It's about choosing wisely and making sure those choices in design and direction come together seamlessly so as not to interfere with the heartbreak at the center of the piece.
What this revival of THE LAST FIVE YEARS does, so beautifully, is breathe. That contrast between ease and Jamie's mounting suffocation and Cathy's frustration, delivers an even more powerful emotional journey than usual.
Director Nick DeGruccio and his technical trifecta - Stephen Gifford (scenic design), Steven Young (lighting), and Keith Skretch (video) - surround Jamie and Cathy with the story of their life in a way that never overpowers them but still gives the audience a window into their world on a grand scale. Well-chosen, often simple, visual concepts, like a larger-than-life photo panel display that changes throughout the show and a gorgeous backdrop of Central Park behind the couple in a moving rowboat, deepen the show's impact without adding clutter. Stars become miniature comets streaking across a celestial canvas and rose petals fall like rain before morphing into fireworks in a shared climactic moment. Their joy and heartache becomes even more fragile with so much "air" around them, and DeGruccio weaves it all together elegantly.
His staging reveals as much about their relationship as what Brown has written. One of the most ironic moments is the transition from Cathy's audition to a public reading of Jamie's book. It happens without a word but the subtext behind the purposeful upstaging is clear. DeGruccio also positions the non-active character on stage in separate parallel scenes which makes the handoff from one to the other seem effortless.
From a musical standpoint, Brown's score is a tremendous showcase for the two actors, who must have great emotional range, a penchant for comedy, and voices that can do justice to his soaring melodies. Luckily both Storrs and Archer fit the bill. She has the tougher road as Cathy because of the way the show is constructed but Storrs is lovably awkward and self-deprecating within her neediness.
The story is based on Brown's own breakup from his first wife so it is natural that her character is seen in a less sympathetic light, especially at first. Archer has the audience on his side from the beginning for who can resist seeing a person over the moon and falling in love. He is charming and charismatic, with a natural gift for comedy. He is also vocally compelling and prone to making delightfully unexpected choices.
Brown's arrangements capture the poignancy of relationship discord, and the longing that results from it, in the luscious sound of the strings. Musical director Brent Crayon brings an instinctual level of awareness to the material and, quite literally, makes it sing. Few in L.A. can play the piano with the kind of finesse that he can and I've not heard this JRB score interpreted better ever. Whether the song is delicate or propulsive, comical or tortured, he manages to bring together the musicians and singers to create an unforgettable musical experience. Translation: you'll be wrecked emotionally by the time the curtain falls.
La Mirada Theatre's revival of THE LAST FIVE YEARS is a breathtaking production that balances subtlety with sweeping passion. Its arrow aims right for the heart and lands with eloquent precision over and over again. Bring tissues.
THE LAST FIVE YEARS
January 20 - February 12, 2017
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts
14900 La Mirada Blvd.
La Mirada, CA 90638
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Photo credit: Michael Lamont