October 7, 2013

The Last 5 Years: Love and Loathing in Risley Theatre

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By SEAN DOOLITTLE

Risley Theatre’s production of The Last Five Years closed over the weekend to a sold-out crowd and a love disavowed. Jason Robert Brown’s experimental 2001 musical recounts the budding (and withering) relationship of aspiring writer Jamie Wellerstein and starving actress Cathy Hiatt. What makes an otherwise cliché story powerful is the musical’s innovative structure: Cathy opens the show lamenting a love lost over the course of her late marriage and continues to travel back to happier times. Jamie travels through the plot in a more conventional chronological order, from first meeting to final goodbye. The interesting juxtaposition of the two rarely intersecting timelines makes for a very emotional night at the theatre.

The musical, a perennial favorite among theatre companies across the country, found new ground under the ever-impeccable direction of Cornell senior Danny Bernstein. When I first heard the cast album years ago, I must confess that I found the premise somewhat gimmicky and overrated. The plot is simple: boy and girl meet and fall in, and out of, love. With very little dialogue, the musical relies on a constant cycle of songs and the strange chronology to drive the plot. This comes with a certain amount of difficulties and challenges to overcome, and without the right amount of expertise, the musical comes off as a lazy revue-type show. After witnessing Mr. Bernstein bring the ill-fated love story to life, I think the show found someone with the skill needed to pull off the balancing act. It wasn’t simply the directing efforts that made the production so successful, however. Special mention must be given to the production designers, who create a character of their own in the minimalist set, lights, and costumes that illustrated the night. The set, a dock softly illuminated by lanterns and surrounded by sand, was beautifully and simplistically designed, subtly complimenting the performances being given on stage.

The real highlight of the night, however, was the two-person cast, Cornell sophomore Sarah Coffey and IC senior Dave Klodowski, who gave their all in capturing the essence of the flawed and relatable characters. With the responsibility of carrying all of the emotion, feeling, and humor of the musical, the performance was truly a testament to the talent that we have here in Ithaca. And boy were they talented.

Coffey’s performance as the ambitious, slightly neurotic Cathy had just the right amounts of raw emotion, confidence, and self-deprecation to make the character believable, without becoming melodramatic. Coffey’s remorseful opening number, “Still Hurting”, was heartbreaking, haunting, and one of the most memorable moments of the night. Later on, when she tackled the hilarious “Climbing Uphill”, I was struck by the versatility of her acting. Both comedy and drama seemed to come naturally to the performer, as she flitted between the two effortlessly. Look out for more of Ms. Coffey in the Flexible Theatre Company’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company in December.

Klodowski’s egotistic but lovable Jamie was an equally challenging and impressive performance. At first, Klodowski came across as a little too childish and flippant, mostly in contrast to Coffey’s early melancholy. Later on, it becomes clear that the acting choices made were deliberate and well made. Jamie’s upbeat songs at the beginning of the show, including “Shiksa Goddess” and “The Schmuel Song” lighten the mood and provide the audience with most of the laughs and levity in the first half. When Jamie’s relationship begins to fall apart in songs like “If I Didn’t Believe in You” and “Nobody Needs to Know”, Klodowski’s shift from happy and hopeful to angry and remorseful becomes all the more powerful.

For a rather vocally and musically demanding show, all those involved in the pit band and on stage performed the music admirably. While there were the uncommon audio complications and singing missteps, these kinds of problems are to be expected after belting out the difficult tunes so often. These issues did not overshadow the sheer impressiveness of the vocal performances, however.

As one of the first productions to open in Risley Theatre this year, The Last Five Years set a standard that I hope continues into the season. It isn’t often that a musical production swings the audience from uproarious laughter to verging on tears, and as deftly, as this. Here’s looking to a fruitful Ithaca theatre season for all.

Sean Doolittle is a theatre enthusiast and sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at spd64@cornell.edu.