Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Last Five Years, Penfold Theatre Company at the Larry L. King Theatre, December 31 - January 25

Intimate but lonely, a haunted portrait of a relationship with the musical flair and lash of cabaret – The Last Five Years, produced by Penfold Theatre and now playing at the Larry L. King Theatre of Austin Playhouse, is a memorable evening spent with two talented characters in the most promising years of their lives.

No one wants to watch the failure of a marriage, to hover as witnesses as hope, delight and enthusiasm go sullen and die. That is the plot of this piece, but writer/composer Jason Robert Brown presents it to us in vignettes of striking musical inventiveness and a clever chronological twist that gives us bittersweet irony throughout.

The scenes with Cathy, the talented aspiring singer and actress, play in reverse. In the opening number, we see her as she discovers a note from Jamie on the kitchen table – and we hear both desolation and resignation in her beautifully sung, moody lament. We learn that they have been together for five years.

The lights then go down and we encounter that same Jamie, five years earlier, as he waits outside her house and bounces into the exultant number about the “Shiksa Goddess.” He glories in the fact that he has finally escaped from all those dutiful Jewish girls in town and is about to embrace the possibility of getting together with a girl who is completely different. “If you had a tattoo, that wouldn’t matter. . . .if you drank blood, well, nobody’s perfect!”

The second-night audience, largely of university age, ate it up, hooted and hollered. Jamie came across as excited, callow and opportunistic – and a lot of fun.

As this very handsome pair of actors work the story from both ends, we begin to realize that Brown and director Michael McKelvey are carefully dosing our emotions. Everyone loves someone who is in love.

In succeeding scenes, Annika Johansson as Cathy gradually lightens up; we learn that in pursuit of a stage career she spent a summer doing musical theatre in the wilds of Ohio (“rooming with a stripper. . . and her snake named Wayne!” ). In chronological forward gear, Jamie gets an unexpected break for his manuscript, an agent, a book contract, and a rave review in the New Yorker from John Updike. He courts Cathy and wins her, and they move in together, sharing an apartment on 73rd street, west of Central Park.

One of the scenes of greatest heartbreak is a Christmas/Hanukah celebration, in which Jamie insists on reading (singing) to her a long short story about Schmul the tailor, while Cathy sits, unimpressed and unconnected, concentrating on crackers and dip. While in Cathy’s reverse narration, she enacts a series of hopeful auditions for singing parts, then relates Jamie’s successes and sings, wistfully, “I’m a part of that. . . “

The two narratives meet at mid-point of this ninety-minute show, when for the first time we find the two together, brimming with hope as they get married.

As the action progresses, the writer/composer and the director adroitly switch our sympathies. Cathy becomes increasingly positive as she nears the start of the relationship; Jamie tries to deal with the devastating effects on Cathy of his literary success, and in so doing both matures and has to deal with her envy and unhappiness.

As an audience we are left unable to choose – there is no villain in this piece, but simply two individuals full of ambitions that do not leave room for a life as a couple.

Maintaining the bitter in relation with the sweet, Brown and Mckelvey give us a delicious confection, resembling perhaps a high quality Swiss chocolate with 80% cacao – dark and full of flavor but always with just enough sugar to lure us onward.

Annika Johansson is a high-cheeked Texas-Scandinavian beauty from Abilene Christian University, with an impressive set of credits since graduating with a BFA in Theatre in 2006. She sings beautifully, with nuance, self-aware irony and humor. Her final scenes, illuminated with Cathy’s hopefulness, are deeply moving.

David Gallagher as Jamie handles deftly the challenge of moving from a strutting post-adolescent to a brooding, conflicted and self-aware adult; he sings and acts with assurance that fully matches that of Johansson.

Brown’s music, scored for the deft fingers of Steve Saugey on keyboard and Amy Harris on violin, is contemporary, spare, and lively; you can hear the cast and musicians do some of the key numbers of The Last Five Years on their 25-minute piece on Aielli Unleashed with KUT’s John Aielli.

The Larry L. King Theatre, a small theatre set up as a tiny apartment in the City, is the perfect venue for this piece.

This is a piece with feeling, sophistication, and great entertainment value. Highly recommended.

12 images by Kimberly Mead from The Last Five Years, Penfold Theatre Company

Review by Robert Faires, published in Austin Chronicle of January 9: "
You leave the theatre, an ache of a melody threaded through your chest, tribute to director and music director Michael McKelvey, who has crafted a tender, wistful anatomy of a relationship."

Review by Joey Seiler in Statesman's Austin 360 arts blog: "Forgive me for gushing, but this is the sort of production that audiences are lucky to see: unique, intimate, beautiful, painful and wonderful."

Comments by Michael Barnes of the Statesman in his "Out and About" blog": "I would be remiss if I didn’t mention something about the staggering performances. . . .David Gallagher. . .skips between twitchy elation and scabrous anger so expertly it makes one shudder with recognition. . . . . Annika Johansson. . . so completely embodies the more difficult “backwards” view of the story, her performance arrives on our collective doorstep ike an unforeseen miracle."

Hannah Kenah's interview of director Michael McKelvey, Austin Chronicle of December 26

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