The Last Five Years
Also see Rosemary's review of The Night of the Iguana
In the decade or so since its premiere, The Last Five Years has become something of a cult phenomenon among aficionados of contemporary musical theatre. With music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown (perhaps best known for his Tony Award-winning score for the musical tragedy Parade and more recently revered by a different generation of fans for his all-teen musical 13), The Last Five Years is comprised of a suite of fourteen songs, most of which are solos sung by the cast of two (here, DCRT Artistic Director Amelia Ampuero and Abraham Jallad, a newcomer to Albuquerque stages).
The show maps the ups and downs of a relationship between two striving twenty-something artistshe's a writer, she's an actor; he's a breakout success, she's notover the span of "the last five years." The dramatic conceit of the show is that "his" story of their shared love is told from beginning to end, while "hers" is narrated in reverse, with the two coinciding only briefly at the show's midpoint marriage. Throughout, the music carries character, plot and dramatic action, with each song a witty, sophisticated monologue set to intricate, soaring melody. The scant spoken material is interstitialmostly one-sided conversations (often on the phone) that provide scattered bits of narrative context.
Through such deft manipulations of chronology and point of view, The Last Five Years presents a portrait of love not simply as an intimate experience shared by two people but also as a deeply interior journey, experienced simultaneously by two inevitably separate people. By always having one character exulting in this love affair's highs, while the other despairs at that same love's lows, The Last Five Years refracts the familiar narrative trajectories of "the love story" with poignant immediacy.
Director Elizabeth Dwyer Sandlin stages The Last Five Years with clear respect for the emotional depth of the piece, and, with her guidance, the production rises to the simple but formidable challenges of the piece. Amelia Ampuero essays the exacting role of Cathy. While often endearing, Cathy is not an especially likable character and Ampuero ably finds the humanizing thread between Cathy's vulnerability and her bitterness. In one of the production's most effective sequences, as Cathy struggles through a series of cattle-call auditions, Ampuero makes one of the score's most difficult songsand the charactertruly her own.
Opposite Ampuero's Cathy, Abraham Jallad's performance as Jamie is often quite good. Jallad's characterization deftly captures Jamie's youthful exuberance and ambition, and the actor is at his best in those songs at the early edge of the love-story arc. Jallad's work in "The Schmuel Song" is especially captivating. In his portrayal of Jamie's escalating selfish arrogance, however, Jallad's restraint obscures as much as it reveals and his pleasing baritone voice is sometimes stretched a bit thin when the score obliges him to belt. (Both roles are musically challenging character studies, often requiring the performers to use soaring upper registers at some of the most emotionally intense moments.) Both Ampuero and Jallad deliver admirable interpretations of the piece, providing fans of the cast recording an opportunity to experience the whole of the piece through different voices while also introducing new audiences to the richly melodic and emotionally textured score (as it did for my companion, who immediately raced home to purchase several favorite tracks).
Director Elizabeth Dwyer Sandlin opts to stage this production in "alley style" (so that two banks of forty or so seats sit opposite each other as they look upon the action playing out on the floor between them). It is a reasonable strategy, in that it maximizes the proximity and distance possible for a two-person play set on a small stage. (The choice also permits accompanist and musical director Mindy Sampson to sit within feet of the actors.) But staging this piece alley-style also creates recurring sight-line challenges for both the director and her cast. Ampuero and Jallad maneuver the obligation gamely, but each member of the audience will inevitably miss a crucial emotional moment because of a turned back, or catch only a partial glimpse of another in profile. As it works to craft visual texture inside The Filling Station's idiosyncratic playing space, the production benefits from the support of solid work from scenic designer Christopher Sousa-Wynn and lighting designer Davey Rogulich. Sousa-Wynn (who teaches scenic design at the University of New Mexico) equips the stage with a contemporary dining room set that pairs an elegant table with two matching chairs. The furniture suggests both intimacy and urbanity, yet is also easily reconfigured throughout the production to convey a variety of scenes (including a car driving down the New Jersey turnpike, a restaurant table, a pier on a river in Ohio, a New York City bar, and a bed for afternoon infidelity). Sousa-Wynn also carpets the stage with scraps of paper, as though a box containing every document of Jamie and Cathy's love had just been artfully strewn about the room. Lighting by Davey Rogulich amplifies the blacks, browns, beiges and grays of the scene, executing subtle tonal shifts between warmth and austerity. Cathy's and Jamie's base costumes likewise evoke the blacks, browns, and grays of Sousa-Wynn's set, but a savvy selection of accent garments (mostly in jewel tones of green, blue, red and purple) introduce a welcome jolt of character and color.
All told, Duke City Repertory's staging of The Last Five Years presents a worthy production of a challenging and deservedly admired piece of contemporary theatre. It also marks a fittingly ambitious end to the new company's inaugural season. Indeed, if The Last Five Years (the fifth of the last five productions offered by Duke City Repertory Theatre in its auspicious inaugural season) is any indication, Albuquerque theatre audiences and DCRTunlike Cathy and Jamiecan look forward to a healthy and happy future together on the Albuquerque theatre scene.
The Last Five Years by Jason Robert Brown, presented by Duke City Repertory Theatre and directed by Elizabeth Dwyer Sandlin, runs through April 10, 2011, at The Filling Station, 1024 4th Street SW, Albuquerque. Show times: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm. $20 general admission; $12 student/senior/military. For reservations, visit dukecityrep.com or call 505-797-7081.
-- Brian Herrera