The Last Five Years – Push Me Pull You
A REVIEW BY ACHILLES FEELS
Everyone who reads our reviews knows I’ve got a soft spot for Stillpointe Theatre, but it’s so fucking deserved. Their work pushes the artistic caliber of our city up a notch…or perhaps a few notches. That is real, it’s honest, and it’s upheld with their newest contribution, The Last 5 Years, written and composed by Jason Robert Brown and currently playing at Stillpointe’s intimate venue (they’re holding musical theatre court in their two-venue space on Charles Street below the Mercury Theatre sign). The only downfall of the evening’s overall patron experience was that it was cold as a witch’s titty in that space (like, I’m shivering my ass off up in here cold). Ryan Haase apologized for the temperature and told us all that he’s fighting with his landlord over the heat. There’s always more drama behind the scenes than on the stage, such is the life of small theatre here in Baltimore. Why can’t we have better art-making spaces? I digress.
The Last 5 Years tells the story of two artists battling it out to live with and love each other in New York City, and it tells it in one of the most intriguing ways possible. Writer Jamie (Danny Bertaux) is just as pleased as punch to be meeting actor Cathy (Jessica Bennett, fresh from Fucking A at Iron Crow) as they embark on their first date. Cathy comes home to find Jamie’s wedding ring and a note left behind as Jamie leaves her for another woman. These things happen simultaneously. The structure is jarring at first because, even though the characters are in the same stage space, they are obviously not in the same room or same time, but rather, ghosts passing in a shared plane, almost connecting but too disparate to touch. There are about 16 songs in the show, and right smack dab in the middle we get “The Next Ten Minutes” where Jamie proposes to Cathy. This is the only place in the show where the characters occupy the same dimension, and they connect in such a powerful way that the moment feels more electrically charged than lightning.
When we talk about acting and singing in a musical piece, critics often divide the field into two categories: actors who can sing, and singers who can act. Here’s the thing: one is more impressive than the other. I believe that you have to be an actor first. There’s no sense in presenting a beautifully voiced character that’s unbelievable. Luckily, the cast (B, there are two: here, the couple is presented as interracial, in the other version, they are both women), Bertaux and Bennett, are on fire, and both are actors who can sing their asses off. Some may say that Bennett casts her long talent-shadow upon Bertaux but I’d disagree. They may be at different places vocally, but Bertaux holds his own. It’s just that Bennett has palpable emotion built right into her vocal range. She sings with emotion, not through (or over) it. Bertaux, however, has the subtlety that makes character songs like “The Schmuel Song” work so well for his register, style, and ability. They compliment each other flawlessly and I felt every single note. Songs that really stood out for me were “The Schmuel Song”, “The Next Ten Minutes”, “Still Hurting” and “I Can Do Better Than That.”
Stillpointe got so much right here. Director Darius K. McKeiver and Assistant Director Corey Hennessey treat the characters as echoes of one other, remaining in a room that has long since been emptied. The long bowling-alley-like venue is presented almost immersively, as the action takes place in every part of the theatre, even the audience risers. Set design, which consists of a large white space and two lofted areas with clocks scattered about, by Ryan Haase, felt more empty (and perhaps more obvious) than usual in terms of Haase’s design aesthetic. But the it’s used perfectly. The actors join the same dead-center space as the pit band, repeatedly, and they even share the use of the conductor and piano. In a wonderful moment, Cathy is auditioning for roles and the band’s lead, Ben Shaver (Music Director), on keys, acts as her piano audition accompanist. He toys with her and eggs her on trying to get her to produce the correct notes at the audition. Cathy is off-key, and obviously struggling to get through the excruciating experience (gasp!). This is the only moment where we get true interaction with the pit band from the cast and it breaks the fourth wall in a smart and cheeky way. One caution: with the pit band so center, I urge them to be careful of distracting large gestures, they sometimes pulled the focus unintentionally.
Musically the show doesn’t miss a mark. The songs and lyrics are clear, beautiful, emotional storytelling. The band, led by Music Director Ben Shaver (also on keys), and Assistant Music Director Trevor Shipley (also on guitar) was incredible, with standouts Livy Amouruso (lady can play the violin!), Steven Bainbridge on the cello (#swoon) and bass by Cody Raum.
The modern-day costumes (Heather Jackson) helped to tell the story gently develop character subtleties (I particularly liked the shoe details that are often left out of the full design picture in the costume department). Lighting (Adrienne Gieszl) was overly glare-y, and at times jarringly abrupt. For a story with this much nuance, I would have liked Gieszl to focus more on revealing the subjects and facilitating the smooth transition from space to space. Some of the lighting blasts the audience right in the face which made seeing parts of the show difficult and uncomfortable. Of course, some of these issues may have to do with access to the appropriate equipment, something so challenging for the small theatres in Baltimore.
THE BOTTOM LINE: With lyrics like: “I will not fail so you can be comfortable” and “Forty-one seasons of dreams” The Last 5 Years hits you right in the heart, and Stillpointe, as usual, puts together a talent factory to pull it off. The theme of almost touching is carried all the way through, from the acting to the direction to the space. That crazy thing that is the push and pull of a breaking relationship is raw and real, and will get you where you live.
Email Achilles Feels at email@example.com
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