By Rob Spiegel for Talkin' Broadway
What a swing for Musical Theatre Southwest, from the razzle-dazzle pop of Shrek The Musical to the intimate and tender The Last Five Years. While these musicals are worlds apart, MTS has delivered both with style and energy.
The Last Five Years—with lyrics, music, and book by Jason Robert Brown—follows the five-year relationship between Cathy (Kristen Bowers) and Jamie (Sean Schwebke). The drama unfolds in song, using a clever time scheme. First Cathy sings a song by herself, then Jamie sings a song, also by himself. Cathy's story-in-song works backwards in time over the five years, beginning with "Still Hurting," as she struggles to let go. Jamie's story follows the relationship from the beginning and moves forward in time. The only moment the characters meet on stage is when their stories intersect at the time of their wedding.
The program makes this clear by naming the year in which each song takes place. Without this instruction, the timeline would likely be confusing, with one character describing the thrill of early love while the other character is complaining about the endless arguments. It is otherwise a fairly conventional love story. A budding novelist falls for a striving actress. They marry just as his writing career begins to take off. She struggles with whether or not she should fight on for her acting career in the face of endless rejection, and he struggles with the new romantic opportunities that come with his success. Since this is a story of an ended relationship, there's no mystery of which way that goes.
The actors are well cast, and both bring the range of vocal tools needed for their roles. Jamie is confident, even when he knows he's wrong, and Cathy is unsure, even when she knows she's right. This comes through in their voices. Schwebke's voice is always clear and strong, while Bowers' voice is often halting, slipping from speech to song and back. Their voices tell the whole story. Cathy is more emotionally invested in the relationship and it shows in her intimate but often tentative delivery. Jamie is going to land on his feet no matter what, and this shows in Schwebke's strong voice.
The light industrial set by Anna Nichols is an odd choice, but it works. A lighted clock/moon sits above the drama, letting us know the time of day/night and the stage of the moon. This serves no dramatic purpose (unless I missed something), but like the shiny metal set, it helps create a crisp atmosphere. The erector set-like set is functional. There's a Jamie side and a Cathy side. At the top of the metal structure, there's a shared space for both.
The musicians are onstage but inconspicuous in black. They seem to disappear as the drama rises. The instrumentation is keyboard (Mindy Sampson), cello (Jeff Bernstein), and violin (Laurie Lopez). The trio is an excellent choice by music director Aaron Howe, and the musicians are wonderful.
The production ends up a hybrid—a stage show delivered as a cabaret evening of torch songs. To support this concept, the audience seating is nightclub style, with a few tables close to the stage, and side-tops next to each of the theater seats. There are candles on the tables and side-tops, with pretzel dishes within reach of every seat. Patrons are welcome to bring drinks into the theater. It's a wonderfully comfortable set-up.
The attention to detail—from the costumes (Debi Flores), to the metal stage, to the on-stage musicians, to the seating set-up—all supports the telling of a bittersweet romance and marriage, from first blush through fiery conflict and on to a quiet disintegration. All in song. The emphasis is on heart, and it comes through with light and intimacy.
The Last Five Years by Jason Robert Brown, directed by Robb Anthony Sisneros for Musical Theatre Southwest. Performances at the MTS Center for Theatre at 6320 Domingo Rd. NE, Suite B through February 22, 2015. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 4 pm. General admission is $25. For reservations, call 505-265-9119 or purchase online at musicaltheatresw.com