OREM — The Last Five Years is a beautiful show written by Jason Robert Brown that follows the tumultuous courtship and marriage of Jamie Wellerstein (played by Preston Ochsenhurt) and Cathy Hiatt (played by Tess Danielson). The show is unique in that the entire production features only two characters. The audience gets to watch the two sides of their story happening in reverse of each other, with Cathy’s part starting at the eventual divorce of the couple, and Jamie starting his tale at the first date. The backwards telling and the solitude of the characters gives a private view into how their relationship blossomed and wilted, each from the view of the partner who thinks they are in the right.
The importance of this exposition is that each of the two actors has a difficult task ahead of them in this production. Cathy starts at the worst part of their lives and shows the tale in reverse, becoming more alive and falling back into love, as it were. Jamie starts as a wide-eyed young buck in love with his “personal Aphrodite” and progresses through showing the story of two people growing apart in their ambitions and lives. This requires a wide range of emotions from each performer, and because they spend the majority of their time on stage by themselves, both actors shoulder their own burden to impress the audience. Unfortunately, the production from What the Blank? Entertainment fell flat in many aspects and did not live up to the writing and music.
Many of the elements of this production were very clearly a constraint of budget. The show was mounted in a small space, but the lack of microphones and a properly mixed sound system made the singular piano drown out the actors many times throughout. The minimalist set pieces were appropriate and necessary for such a small company. However, the choice to mime many set pieces and props was a mistake on the part of director Trinity Johnson. The items chosen to mime were unnecessary for the telling of the story, and more than that, the actual act of miming them was inconsistent in its execution. The overall quality of the production would have been improved had they chosen to let the audience use its imagination for those items and set pieces.
By the structure of the show means that, in most productions, the two actors spend very little time on stage together. Usually, only Jamie and Cathy share space in one song and several small vignettes. Johnson made an interesting choice in having them spend more time together than typically occurs in this show. This choice was a bold one that excelled in some places, but suffered in others. Having Cathy on stage during “The Schmuel Song” was good, as it allowed Ochsenhurt to directly tell the story to Danielson, and this seemed to be a major strength of his as a performer.
Ochsenhurt played Jamie in a manner that was timid and devoid of the natural confidence that is written into the character. His every move seemed to be a question of doing the right thing at the right time, and hoping it worked when he did it. His vocal performance struggled in many places, but had some solid moments in his more gloomy or dim songs, hurting only for volume in those moments. Both actors had several missed lines in song, fudged notes and missteps. This is mostly to be expected and forgiven in student productions such as this, but the regular acknowledgement of the actors on stage, even going so far as to audibly say, “That wasn’t right,” at one point highlighted the accidental slips.
Danielson gave an interesting range of emotion to the character of Cathy, seeming to mostly focus between angry and in love, which are valid feelings for her to portray. That is a valid choice for an actor and director to make and could give a different feel to the show, but I wanted to also see Cathy feeling hurt or sad. The limited breadth in performance made it difficult to make a connection to Cathy as a character because she seemed to be yelling often and did not show a lot of vulnerability. This is partially due to the timbre of Danielson’s voice being naturally bright, making any amount of volume come across as yelling instead of projecting. This is another element that may have been resolved through the use of microphones or a sound system.
This production fell on its knees in most instances. There were several good moments or elements, especially the solo pianist for the show, Ellis Lucero. Lucero was talented and consistent through the show, even doing his best to help with timing issues or missed notes by adding smooth transitions. However, this production was below the line of ready to be viewed by a general audience, needing more time in workshop and practices.
It is my sincerest hope of this reviewer that these young actors are able to find their feet and learn to play to their strengths and develop their talents as they continue performing. This production of The Last Five Years was not enjoyable, but could be improved and the actors have every chance in front of them to get better and find joy in their performance.