Aching realism makes 'The Last Five Years' a heartbreaker

By Bridgette M. Redman

"The Last Five Years" is a show that punches you in the gut and leaves you in an almost speechless state with roiling emotions.

Indeed, in the bathroom immediately following the show there were more than a few people with red-rimmed eyes who were overcome with emotion and trying to regain control. Friends were trying to provide comfort to people who had just had their raw wounds ripped open again.

It's that sort of musical - one that puts to music the pain that people experience in a divorce or even severe relationship issues. It is one that deals honestly and intensely with broken hearts and shattered relationships. And What a Do Theatre packs as much power into the production as possible.

Writer and composer Jason Roberts Brown reveals from the first song why this musical is called the "last" five years and not the "past" five years. This couple had something wonderful, but it is over and their hearts lie shattered on the ground. Cathy, a struggling actor, is given the first number and her story is told from the end and works its way backward in time to the beginning of the relationship. Meanwhile Jamie, whom you've just learned will eventually leave Cathy heartbroken, starts his story at the beginning of the relationship where they've just met and he's fallen in love.

The two, played by Ashlyn Nicole Shawver (Cathy) and Elliott Trevor Litherland (Jamie) belt out alternate solos throughout the 90-minute show in vocally demanding performances. Their voices were so powerful that it would have been a better experience to hear them unamplified, as the belting sometimes became painful in its volume. It also would have contributed to the intimacy.

The show is being produced in its new home, a home that could easily inspire a company name change from "What a Do" to "What a Space." The large staging area lets them create multiple formats, and in this case take a relatively bare stage and allow it to flexibly and quickly change scenes for every number.

Everything about this production is designed for maximum impact. While there were only two people on stage, the tech crew worked overtime to give them everything they needed to amplify their words, story and emotion. Wade King on lightboard and his four spotlight operators created a constantly changing backdrop on the scrim with gobos and spots that matched every song. One particularly heartbreaking number had heart-shaped spots creating two silhouettes of Jamie as he sang.

Director Randy Wolfe expertly manages every aspect of this performance so that it all works together in telling a love story that is unrelenting in its tragedy and sorrow. If Brown intended there to be a period of hope or feeling uplifted, Wolfe doesn't allow it. Even the happier numbers are layered heavily with irony, increasing the feeling of impending loss.

Shawver came on strong and stayed strong through the entire production. Despite the challenge of presenting a character moving backward in time, she managed to show real character growth and progression. One would think that in moving backward she would go from shattered grief to giddy happiness, but the journey was more layered than that. It was a trip laden with irony and sorrow made more intense by the moments of hope and happiness. Even the last number, one of the few duets in the musical, becomes the greatest tearjerker as she sings in innocence of what is to come with lyrics that are as fitting for the end as for the beginning.

Litherland took longer to warm up to the intensity of the show, though his vocal performance and dance ability was uniformly strong and forceful. Admittedly, Brown makes his role more challenging as he must follow the opening torch song "Still Hurting" with the energetically playful number "Shiksa Goddess." Too much of Litherland's early performance was filled with mugging and was more about a performance for the audience than the communicating of a relationship's story and development. It wasn't until he sang "The Schmuel Song" that Litherland transformed into a genuine character rather than a skilled entertainer. From that point on, his performance grows in its passion and the character of Jamie becomes richer and more complex. His longing for happiness isn't simply shallowness, but an intelligent choice and a wedge that comes between him and the woman who helped him find a deep happiness that he hoped would endure.

"The Last Five Years" presents a complex relationship and the heartbreak of loss. Brown doesn't point fingers in either direction or turn either of his characters into a villain. Rather, there were compatibilities and incompatibilities, good choices and poor ones. There was also very real pain in the inability of two people who were once so devoted and close to find the connection that once meant so much. While five years seems an awful short time for the intensity of the relationship displayed, the two actors leave the audience no doubt that both characters have been shattered by the loss of their love.

REVIEW:

'The Last Five Years'

What A Do Theatre, 4071 W. Dickman Road, Springfield. Friday-Saturday through Feb. 25, plus Thursday, Feb. 16. $20. 269-282-1953. http://www.whatado.org

Comics

Theater

like us on facebook follow us on twitter follow us on google+