Blair Howell is a kind and driven producer who asked me to write about Utah Rep's production of The Last Five Years. It's been good for me since any reviewing I've done recently has been on a more formal forum, frontrowreviewersutah.com .
This review will be a little different since I am only beholden to myself on this blog. Also, it's been ages since I posted anything on here--and so I'm very grateful to Blair for this assignment that will help me to dust off this blog and get writing again!
I have so many thoughts about this production of The Last Five Years.
First thought: Theme. This show is about time. I've listened to the songs over and over again ever since my friends Ben and Melanie introduced me to the music almost ten years ago and I never realized the through line of this theme. Time. "Take your time", "Will you spend your life with me, for the next ten minutes?" "Things are moving too fast" etc etc. The theme jumps out over and over again. I wondered about how "The Schmuel Song" fit in, and yet it feels now like that song is the entire point of the musical now.
For those unfamiliar--the show is two people Jamie and Kathy. They both sing solos about their 5 year relationship. Kathy's solos start at the end of the relationship. Jamie's starts at the beginning of the relationship. They meet in the middle for one duet entitled "The Next Ten Minutes" where they get married. It's heartbreaking and exhilarating throughout the show.
Because we know what's going to happen, the show needs to be about more than just "what's going to happen next". It's about how is it going to happen. Why is it happening? What is happening during these songs? The show cannot be approached lazily. It is about so much more than plot. It's about a character's journey. And each journey needs to be taken within each song.
This is where this production failed. The actors played the surface of the song. They played the energy of the song--but they added nothing else to it. If the melody was sad--the actors played sad. If the energy was frenetic, the actors were frenetic. The only way this show works is if the actors can find moments of opposition within the songs. These are solos where they are singing to themselves and to the audience. They don't have a scene partner. The journey of the song has to come from them. And for many of the songs--the journey was lacking and unspecific. The surface choices were easy, but the audience can get the surface choices from the orchestrations and the lyrics. We know that Jamie is nervous about his future going too fast in his song--but what I didn't see was his ego and his confidence at the thought that "Yeah, things are moving too fast for me! Woo!" The actor almost has to play the song relaxed in order to create a journey through the song. Playing the surface doesn't give me any more to the story. And the songs seemed longer because of that. I would have liked to have seen the actors explore where they were lying to themselves. Instead, each actor played it as though everything coming out of their mouths was the God's honest truth. As though we've never lied to ourselves about where we are in a relationship. If they could have honestly explored the lies, the opposing tactics and found the arches that exist in each song, it would have been better. I say this because the actors were clearly gifted and gave so much. I am writing this as an MFA actor and as a director. I'm being supremely picky here because I believe they could have and should have found more.
Another thing that bothered me was that the show is about characters living with all the energy, ego, and insecurity of being in your 20s. The actors were not in their 20s and despite the amazing talent and technique--something was lost. Sometimes I felt as though the objective in a scene was to look pretty or to look disheveled. The more interesting choices were drowned in questions of appearance. If they hadn't needed to fight that battle, I believe they would have made more interesting and less obvious choices. I really didn't care about how the actors looked. That wasn't the point of the play. But because the actors were worried about looking like characters who were at least ten years their junior--this theme of looking pretty crowded out the more interesting choices.
And the set. The theatre is a rectangular space. As such, the director had the option of placing the actors across a long rectangular playing space. Because the audience was also in a long rectangular--the sightlines were very limiting. I couldn't see anything that was played on the front stage right because I was sitting in the back stage left. If the scenes could have been played back by four or five feet--we would have seen things perfectly. There was a massive marble looking barricade that was used for a couple of scenes--and everyone could see that perfectly, but it seemed perfectly useless the rest of the time. In a play that is written in such an experimental way--it would have been more effective to have set pieces imagined. I looked forward to seeing the duet of "The Next Ten Minutes" on the top of the marble steps in the center of the stage, but instead it took place off the marble steps to the left. It made no sense to me. It seems like they were fighting with the space instead of embracing the space.
So onto the good.
I loved how Erin Royall Carlson reflected Cathy's journey backwards. It was a riot to see her incarnations throughout the show. She seemed almost matronly at the end--and at the beginning she exuded light and youth. Her voice even journeyed from full head voice to a brighter nasally younger sound. I enjoyed her song "Summer in Ohio" so much.
I loved Rhett Richins voice. Oh my goodness he sounds like velvet. And again, you could see his character's journey reflected in his physical carriage and clothing. "The Schmuel Song" was my favorite. He nailed all the runs and I don't know how his lungs held out so well. It was spectacular work.
I loved how John Sweeney's direction helped highlight the theme of time and left me questioning so much about what it is to be insecure and ambitious in love in your 20s.
The highlight of the show was the chamber orchestra led by the incomparable Anne Puzey on the piano. My goodness that woman is without limits. They took up half the stage and I noticed many of the audience members watching them throughout the show. These musicians are a credit to Utah theatre.
If you see the show, you will be enchanted. This is an amazing show done very well. I know I can be overly critical, and I understand that it is impossible to do a perfect show. I am not a "reviewer" in the technical sense. I'm just a theatre artist who likes to write about the theatre that I see. As a theatre goer, you will find things you LOVE about this show--because there is so much there to love. As an artist, I wanted to see the actors play more than just one or two tactics and stop worrying so much about how they looked.
Okay one more thing I realized while watching this show. I saw why Jamie did what he did before the end of the relationship, but it was never clear to me why Cathy stopped going to support Jamie. I wonder if it's not in the show because Jason Robert Brown wrote this show about his own relationship and never really understood why his wife did what she did. Interesting.
My thoughts were provoked. My ears were pleased. It was a beautiful night out at the theatre.
If you go, for tickets, visit: http://utahrep.org/tickets/
The Sugar Space is located at 616 Wilmington Ave--just off of 700 East and 2100 South in Salt Lake City. According to the ticket site, there are seats available for Thursday, March 12th at 7:30pm and Saturday, March 14th at 9pm. They will also be playing at the Ziegfeld Theater in Ogden next week.