THE LAST FIVE YEARS Gloriously Elevates The Musical Theatre Genre

28349-85052Without a doubt, Jason Robert Brown has become one of our most prolific and admired musical theatre composers of the last fifteen years.  His melodic structure always comes with an edge that makes him (along with Andrew Lippa) the envy of contemporary theatre.   One need look no further than Brown’s 2001 show, The Last Five Years, which is an expose on his own failed marriage, to see the man master this particular genre.

The Last Five Years (which had its premiere at Northlight Theatre) has earned its way to almost cult fame, so much so that a film version is in the works and a staged production is always being mounted somewhere in the country.   Be that as it may, I defy anyone to find a production as well rounded as polished as the one being staged by Kokandy Productions at Theatre Wit.     In fact, under the direction of John Glover and featuring two of Chicago’s brightest actors, Jim DeSelm and Allison Hendrix, I dare say that this may be the definitive production of this particular musical.

The story tracks the last five years of the relationship between Jamie (Mr. DeSelm) and Cathy (Ms. Hendrix).  Cathy’s story is told is reverse chronological order while Jamie’s is told in chronological order with the two only converging on their wedding song.     Much like its predecessor I Do, I Do! several decades before, this two person play relies much on the likability of the two characters and their relationship with the audience.   But unlike I Do, I Do!, there is no interaction or interplay between the characters.  Thus, it is left to the audience to fill that void.

Director John Glover has done something very ingenious to fill in that gap of lack of character interaction.  He has Jaime and Cathy accompany each other on grand pianos.   Now of course actors playing instruments is not revolutionary (John Doyle’s Sweeney Todd), and in fact I am usually not a proponent of this type of theatre as it always takes away from the underlying truth of a scene (see my reviews of Court Theatre’sMan of La Mancha and the recent and ridiculous Godspell at Brown Paper Co.). But Mr. Glover elevates both the musicality of the piece as well as the relationship between the two archetypes to make this production in many ways iconic.

Then there are the performances of Mr. DeSelm and Ms. Hendrix which again heighten whatever thoughts the composer initially had when putting pen to paper.  Both actors transform themselves into Jaime and Cathy, and by then having to accompany each other (in a very difficult score, by the way), they are also forced to listen to each other in a way that mere line reading back and forth would never accomplish.    Instead of vocal reactions, both Jaime and Cathy can react in a way a chord is played or a key change is forged.   Though this may not be noticeable to those without a music background, for those that do, the relationship that is created between these two actors is far more real than anything I have seen this year.

TheLastFiveYears.05.20130805Add to the two grand pianos the glorious Kimberly Lawson on violin and Lilianna Zofia Wosko on cello and your ears are in for a feast of beautiful tones, so much so that you will want to purchase a cast album with this remarkable group rather than anything that is currently available.

Whenever I am in doubt about the quality and future of musical theatre with all the unnecessary film making a transition to stage (Ghost, Sister Act, Flashdance, Footloose, Rocky, The Bodyguard), I can now close my eyes and remember this perfect production to restore my faith in the theatre Gods.

The Last Five Years plays though August 25, 2013 at Theatre Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave, Chciago, IL 60657.  For tickets, call the box office at 773.947.8150. For more information visit www.theatrewit.comor www.kokandyproducitons.com

For calendar information visit www.theatreinchicago.com