Friday 6 February 2015

The Last Five Years a sad & charming urban song

Background sketch :  New York City. The Big Apple. "If I can make it there / I can make it anywhere!" Frank Sinatra famously sang. Such is the heart & soul of The Last Five Years. It's the story of NYC around Y2K through young eyes : two lovers, then marrieds, then ex's. 

A nascent writer, he, while she nurtures the seed to grow as an actress. But the central conceit of the show is this : she tells the story chronologically in reverse, backwards in time from Month 60. He tells the story forward, from Month 1. Their calendars cross at the time they marry. All of this sung in a dozen-plus songs, most of them solo, two or three together, often in counterpoint. 

Structurally the play is a meta-reflection of its core themes : this is time out of time for these two characters, never really in sync, more twin solos than duet. Always a problem when lives are lived more parallel than tandem. One cannot help but recall Antoine St. Exupery's mandala : "Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but of looking outward together in the same direction." In this story the principals, alas, do neither.

Script origins :  Written by Tony-award-winning playwright, lyricist and composer Jason Robert Brown in 2001, the script is an acknowledged elegy to Mr. Brown's own failed marriage to a struggling actress named Theresa O'Neill [about whom Google is dead silent]. Still, O'Neill found the script so true a reflection of their tempestuous relationship that she sued Brown for breach of divorce terms. After its Chicago premier in 2001, Brown changed the play's female character significantly in response. The case settled on the courthouse steps in 2002 on the eve of its NYC debut.

In Brown's script the characters are 20-somethings Jamie Wellerstein (Danny Balkwill) and Cathy Hiatt (Diana Kaarina). Wellerstein is on the verge of breakthrough as a novelist, while Hiatt is a striving minor actor. Both surge with adrenalin, whose hormonal cousin of course is cortisol, the stress poison. But being young and horny and ambitious and full of cortisol -- in New York City -- is trite stuff. 

The characters sing their thoughts rather than speak them, reminiscent of the short-lived t.v. series from the 90's "Cop Rocks". And because for her the story looks back from Month 60, Cathy's opening song is "Still Hurting" that laments the couple's break-up. "Jamie is over and where can I turn? / Covered with scars I did nothing to earn / Maybe there's somewhere a lesson to learn...".

For his part, Jamie's opener is that of a Month 1 bragger. As a Jew, he sings the praises of his goy girlfriend whom he proclaims is a "Shiksa Goddess" -- the title of which sounds like it was clipt straight out the popular but cringeworthy Bryan Fogel play & movie Jewtopia. "I've had Shabbas dinners on Friday nights / With every Shapiro in Washington Heights / But the minute I first saw you / I could barely catch my breath / I say 'Hey hey hey hey!' / I think I could be in love with someone / Like you."

The bitch goddess confronts hope : Anyone past 30 knows how difficult it is to juggle a career, a lover and ambition at the same time -- at any time -- in one's life. Ambition is a particularly insidious bitch goddess because its focus is always, inherently, outward -- not inward or "in the same direction" as St. Exupery counsels. And if success comes early and relatively easily, as it does for Jamie due to his innate gifts with pen-&-ink, chances are any relationship that tries to compete with the goddess will start with sparks, sure, but shortly will fuel lots of explosions and ultimately just smoulder in a heap of ashes.

Along the way there can be compromises and adjustments, of course. Not unlike what big brother told me, mostly kidding, on the eve of my second marriage : "Well, man, all I can say is you weren't too good at this the first time around, so I take this to be a triumph of 'faith' over 'experience'."  For their part, half-way through the show, it's Cathy and Jamie's pre-nuptial bliss put out there to one another over a picnic shortly before they take the fateful vows.  Jamie : "Will you share your life with me?"  Cathy : "Forever."  Jamie : "For the next ten lifetimes?"  Cathy : "Forever." Both : "Till the world explodes / Till there's no one left / Who has ever known us apart."

Why TL5Y works : The cleverness of Brown flipping calendars around as he has done is what makes TL5Y work dramatically. Were the piece written in chrono-order as a kind of roman a clef with a gob of dialogue, there would be no particular reason to watch it other than to catch some new tunes, perhaps. Because ever since 9/11, to watch "Sex In The City" or any other off-the-shelf NYC romantic comedy strikes this viewer, anyway, as phony and cheap and somehow hypocritical. For a couple of 20-somethings to re-tell straight-up their predictable travails, well, that would be redundant -- just more 20-somethings and their own spin of blah-blah. We've all had our own, thanks.

TL5Y, however, is anything but blah-blah. In the hands of co-producers Kaarina and Balkwill -- principals and partners in their company LionFish Entertainment with this their inaugural production -- the show is altogether charming. Script limitations aside, this is a heart-stopping hanky-grabber of a performance, right from moment one of the final Preview performance I saw February 5th.

Three qualities stood out particularly : the actors' strong voices; their excellent blocking and staging; the genuineness of their characters' love and heartache over time despite all their frailties and faults.

Buckle up, feminists, this is Kansas : This script could not possibly have been written by a contemporary North American woman unless she were an Ann Coulter clone. Because playwright Brown reveals his sexist genes from the get-go : Cathy is forever "waiting" for Jamie. She always pines for him. For his part, note, he has been waiting "for someone like you", Cathy, not you, Cathy per se. 

And, like Brown, the character Wellenstein is a writer : "You are the story I should write, I have to write!" he sings to her in what he thinks is a generous and intimate moment. As his literary career starts to arc -- same time as he falls in love with his Shiksa goddess -- he sings out giddily : "I found a woman to love and an agent who loves me." His thrill at earning $2,000 from The Atlantic Monthly printing a chapter from his novel is summed up by Cathy as she laments : "He's off on a trip to Jamie-land / Staring catatonic out the window." In a heartbeat she apologizes and rationalizes, however : "I'm a part of all this / I tend to follow in his stride."  

But clever trumps quibbles : Previous qualms aside, TL5Y works well in the hands of these two actors because of their juice as performers, their attention to stage detail, the embracing and involving theatrics made possible by the PAL stage that's right at the audience's fingertips. That the character Cathy is unliberated and the character Jamie a proper schlub, no matter. When he cuckolds his wife while she's soldiering on as a minor player during a summer theatre gig in Ohio, Jamie sums his dalliance up this way : "All right, I got what I need / Nobody needs to know... / Since I have to be in love with someone / Maybe I could be in love with you." If such sentiments make him more pathetic than his betrayed and self-denying wife, the audience sympathizes and relates regardless. The pathos ends with Month 60 Jamie protesting "I could never rescue you", while Month 1 Cathy sings back : "I will be waiting, waiting, until I crawl to your door." We have come full circle. 

Production values : The accompanying 6-piece band orchestrated and directed by piano man Michael Creber from the front was first-rate, but then I've always been a sucker for cello, and there are two of them at play here. Sarah Mabberley's set is a knock-out of function and simple aesthetics. An outsize cut-out mirror frame swivels mid-stage, so the audience is transported to-and-fro in time as the characters step through it repeatedly. Simple and complementary bauhaus scrolls are the backdrop artwork behind the orchestra. Nice. For his part co-director Warren Kimmel makes excellent use of every square centimetre of stage and no doubt exercised considerable influence over the players' blocking and gesticulations, which were tight and convincing throughout.

Who gonna like : While creator J. R. Brown's lyrics are somewhat predictable, his music is engaging and completely accessible in the manner of Les Mis, so folks who like musical theatre, as do I, will agree TL5Y is warm and engaging. The familiar turf of the plot is offset completely by the inventive calendar-switch technique Brown introduced that has just-in-love Cathy pining painfully for Jamie at the end. Meanwhile he's singing to her a final good-bye. Touching, effective, clever. Tears were shed around the house quite liberally. If, like me, you enjoy small stage intimacy and just a few characters you can engage with up close and personal, TL5Y is 90 minutes of charm and sweet sorrow and tunefulness that surely will touch your heart. I predict Vancouver will see much much more of LionFish Entertainment as time goes by. Bravo !

Particulars : Produced by LionFish Entertainment & ARC Works. At the Performing Arts Lodge (PAL) theatre, February 4 - 14, 581 Cardero Street. phone 604.255.4312 for playtimes and tickets. 

Production crew : Music & lyrics by Jason Robert Brown.  Stage Direction : Warren Kimmel, Danny Balkwill & Diana Kaarina.  Musical Direction : Danny Balkwill & Michael Creber.  Band : Piano - Michael Creber. Guitar - David Sinclair. Bass - Aaron Andrada. Violin - Kevin McDonnell. Cello 1 - Eva Ying. Cellow 2 - Zhuojun [Chantal] Bian.  Set & Properties Design : Sarah Mabberley.  Costume Design : Katie Murphy Balkwill.  Lighting Design : Stephen Torrence.  Assistant Lighting Designer : Scott Zechner.  Sound Design & Live Audio : Geoff Hollingshead.  Producers : Danny Balkwill, Diana Kaarina & Chris Adams.  Stage Manager : Melanie Thompson.  Stage Crew : Chanel Cairns.  PAL Technical Director : Nathan Hoffmann.  Publicity : Ashley Buck & Danielle St. Pierre.

Actors : Danny Balkwill. Diana Kaarina. 


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