Directed by John D. Glover
Starring Jim DeSelm & Allison Hendrix
Presented by Kokandy Productions
Playing at Theater Wit
An earnest, slim production reminds us what we love about TL5Y…
At the risk of dating myself, I’ll admit that I was only seventeen the first time I heard the 2002 cast recording of Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years. Needless to say, I’d never been married (let alone divorced), and the longest relationship I’d been in up until that point had been with my mom. Still, and even at that tender age, I remember the experience to be something of a revelation.
The story of Jamie and Cathy—he’s a successful novelist, she’s a not-so-successful actor—and their hapless five-year marriage, The Last Five Years instantly struck me as something I’d never heard before. Gone was the campy ‘in-speak’ of a Jerry Herman. Gone was the epic spectacle of a Cameron Mackintosh. Gone even were the scrutinizing ironies of a Stephen Sondheim.
Instead, here was this piano musical about two neurotic GenXers and their shitty marriage. What the hell was this?
But I’m not going to lie. It was refreshing. The intimacy of the story. The frank—almost confessional—lyrics. The barebones orchestrations. Never had a score struck me as saying so much and so close with so little. And eleven years, three bad relationships, and innumerable professional frustrations later, The Last Five Years only makes more and more sense to me.
So it’s with considerable relief that I report Kokandy Production’s current staging—now at Lakeview’s Theater Wit—only reminded me of all the things I love about this show.
Sure, maybe director John D. Glover’s production doesn’t quite push the envelope as far as we might want. Last Five Years consists of alternating musical monologues—first her, then him, then her again—with the story of their marriage and gradual divorce told in reverse chronology from Cathy’s POV and forward in time from Jamie’s. So apart from one number in the middle where the two finally meet to be married, there’s no interaction between them.
Thus opportunities for the intimate characterizations needed in this very intimate show have to be subtly interwoven into each number. But Glover’s staging feels at times sadly flat. Jamie and Cathy sit. Jamie and Cathy stand. They on occasion even pace erratically. But they seldom have internal motivations which seem to go beyond ‘Sing this song’ or ‘Get back to the piano in time.’
That’s because Glover’s tasked his actors—Jim DeSelm and Allison Hendrix—with providing piano accompaniment, one for the other. So there’s a fair share of awkward fumbling back and forth, always trying to be in position to pick up the musical cue. At one point—during the key number, ‘The Next Ten Minutes’—Hendrix has to turn the page of the score for DeSelm, pulling us out of the dramatic moment right when we need to be most invested.
Hendrix gives a genuinely touching performance. True, she’s doesn’t always have the required vocal range and on occasion struggles with keeping her breath support, but she’s to be especially commended for knowing how to play to her strengths. Hendrix wisely underscores the self-deprecating humor in Cathy’s fumbling emotional insecurities, and she isn’t afraid to be less than graceful in order to show us some rather unexpected new facets to Cathy’s character. Plus Hendrix’s real vulnerability gives credence to Cathy’s emotional codependency and her tendency to pose as the perpetual victim in her marriage.
Jim DeSelm, for his part, is an exquisitely controlled vocalist, capturing all the confidence of the hot-shot young novelist without losing Jamie’s tender side. The hard thing is to make us believe that Jamie is actually conflicted about his marital infidelities—born of the sense that their lives, much like the temporal structure of the show itself, are moving in two radically different directions. In this, DeSelm is largely successful, especially in Jamie’s highly fraught penultimate number ‘Nobody Needs to Know.’
As instrumentalists, DeSelm and Hendrix are sound pianists, and when joined by Kim Lawson on the violin and Lilianna Wosko on the cello, the four-piece orchestra retains the bare-boned depths we long for in Last Five Years.
So sure. Kokandy’s Last Five Years is a tad underdeveloped and doesn’t always take dramatic advantage of the openness of its material. But at the same time, it also doesn’t obfuscate or overcomplicate the show’s purposely lean emotional through line. Powerful and resonant when it matters most, more than anything, this production is a solid testament to the enduring power of Brown’s revelatory score.
Reviewed by Anthony Mangini
Reviewed Friday, August 2nd, 2013.
Running time is approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.
The Last Five Years runs until August 25th. Theater Wit is located at 1229 W. Belmont. For tickets call (773) 947-8150. Check out their Theater in Chicago listing at https://www.theatreinchicago.com/the-last-five-years/6470/.