Last 5’s innovative plot line stands out

Jamie (Phil Kalmanovitch) has a chat during The Last 5 Years.
Jamie (Phil Kalmanovitch) has a chat during The Last 5 Years.

Theatre Review: The Last 5 Years @ The Baby Grand

In theatre, it always proves to be interesting when writers play with structure. New and innovative plot ideas seem to often be the focus of new writers. Less occasionally, playwrights look to form to add novelty to piece.

Writers have been hard-pressed for new structural ideas since Shakespeare’s time. As different plot lines are plunked into the same form over and over again, it can take a lot to produce a fresh play when stale structures tend to impose a sense of predictability. However, the genius of Tony Award-winning composer Jason Robert Brown has created a refreshing hiccup in this standardized continuum: The Last 5 Years, locally staged by the Single Thread Theatre Company. While the tale takes on a subject that is somewhat old hat—two people falling in and then subsequently out of heterosexual love with each other—the presentation of this typical tale is where much of the musical’s innovation and atypicality lies.

The musical takes place on a basic set with only two characters. These two characters interact indirectly for all but one scene in the entire one hour and 20 minute, intermission-free production. The two characters are a couple: Jamie, played by Phil Kalmanovitch, and Cathy, played by Amber Mills. Cathy’s narration of their love affair runs from the end of the relationship backwards to the beginning, while the character of Jamie concurrently dictates the relationship from its beginning to its end. The scenes feature each of the characters in alternation, and on two occasions their scenes cleverly converge. If you hadn’t read the liner notes in the playbill ahead of time, it would have been a confusing start to the play. But, to the informed audience member, the whole concept was immediately grabbing.

It was fascinating to watch the two dynamics of the relationship from opposite and one-sided perspectives. The two stories merge for two musical numbers—the point at which the couple gets engaged. The audience gets to watch the characters overlap back over the scenarios already played out by their opposing character. Then the audience sees the other character’s side of the story.

This was a captivating concept that was pulled off quite successfully, considering the difficulty the actors must have experienced in acting and responding all by themselves on stage, with no one to feed off or even to react to. With scenes involving “air” hand-holding, and responding to invisible characters, these two actors had a challenge.

The play opens with a bitter, yet powerful number, “Still Hurting,” sung by the character Cathy. Immediately following this tune, the character of Jamie takes the stage with a contrastingly-hopeful song “Shiksa Goddess,” in which he sings about the perfect girl he just met.

Mills seemed a bit hesitant at the beginning when confronted with the almost intrusively-intimate audience that was rather confined in the diminutive Baby Grand Studio. The musical almost felt too big for the setting. However, as Mills inevitably got more familiar with the crowd, she let her character open up quite noticeably and her astounding voice rose. Phil Kalmanovitch also did a fantastic job at displaying his vocals, but his character seemed somehow awkwardly constrained by the tight setting. However, he seemed to loosen up after eliciting some laughter from the crowd during the quirky number “The Schmuel Song.” The play progressed—and regressed in this case—to a not-so-harmonious junction where the two characters finally had a number together. Cathy and Jamie joined voices in a tender piece called “The Next Ten Minutes”—the only point of simultaneous relational harmony in the play—in which the two characters get engaged. It’s a shame their voices didn’t harmonize as much as the story did. Their voices found it hard to blend on this first encounter between the two characters, perhaps because they were used to singing to their own respective tune.

However, the energy of the show was noticeably boosted following this mid-point meeting. A refreshed confidence was apparent in the actors after this point. The two characters pulled something of an identity switch as they then took on the emotions of the other. As Kalmanovitch took the part of the slowly embittering lover his character gained more dimension, and subsequently more interest and flare. Mills consequently took on the role of the besotted lover, playing that up with immense spirit in the numbers “I Can Do Better Than That” and “Climbing Uphill.” The musical ultimately met its end in its beginning, as the closing number featured both characters—Cathy at the start of the love affair she had just acted out in reverse, and Jamie, jaded and walking out on a shattered marriage. The last word sung by both characters in unison was “goodbye.” One was sung with an excited anticipation for the next meeting and the other spoken to stamp a dismal end onto that very same relationship. This was a poignant end to an intriguing production that bore a structure that in itself so artfully represented the very entanglements of love that it played out.

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