With The Last Five Years, the fledgling Studio Theatre has staked its claim as a force in Little Rock’s community theatre scene. This production of Jason Robert Brown’s time-bending, two character musical highlights not only the talents Little Rock offers, but also the virtues of the space in which it was performed.
The musical tells of the rise and fall of the relationship of budding novelist Jamie and struggling actress Cathy. The audience sees his perspective moving forward and her’s moving backwards with the two intersecting only momentarily at their wedding. Because of this conceit, there is very little chance for interaction between actors Jeremy Hall and Erin Martinez. But what the show does offer is ample opportunities for each to shine as they thoroughly inhabit the characters.
As Cathy, Martinez uses her expressive features and wide vocal range (notes and styles) to move from pathos to frustration to love and excitement. From his first entrance to his final exit, Hall is full of energy. It moves from nerves to joy to confidence to guilt and finally resignation. His pace may vary, but there is ever-present force in his trajectory.
This is a small show full of quiet moments. Hall and Martinez are both able to maximize these moments with a change in posture, a small gesture, a tilt of the head or a raised eyebrow. They also each have moments of joyous ebullience where they let go – while staying in character. For Martinez it was “A Summer in Ohio” which joyfully recounts a hellish summer. Hall had several lively songs but his highlight was probably “The Schmuel Song” where he channels a bit of Tevye in a dopey romantic way.
Director Ryan Whitfield kept the action fluid as it shifted between the two perspectives and time frames. He ensured honest portrayals and created an atmosphere where the audience was more eavesdropping than “watching a performance.” He also kept the continuity so that the two halves of the same scene (played at different times in the show) gelled properly.
Musical Director Mark Binns not only maximized the vocal talents of the two performers, he led the live band through the score’s varied musical styles. (It was a pleasure to walk in to the theatre and hear an orchestra warming up – a joy one misses with pre-recorded music or only a synthesizer or keyboard.) Musicians Bob Bidewell, Charlie Friedman, Brian Wolverton, Sam Clark and Binns displayed their own musical talents while also supporting the singers.
With a proscenium stage, tiered seating in comfortable chairs, and a balcony for orchestra and technicians, the Studio Theatre provides a “traditional” theatre setting. It, however, has enough flexibility to incorporate a blackbox-like setting as needed. While theatre can be performed any where, too often community theatre tries to do “proscenium” shows in a blackbox setting for economic and not artistic reasons. The Studio Theatre space allows for both types of settings which means that decisions can be made based on artistic reasons.
While this production could have been done on a completely blank space, the set (by Whitfield and Matthew Mentgen) features levels and a variety of distinct playing areas that enhanced the production. The giant clock on the back wall served not only as a visually interesting element, but the changing hands were an added touch as the story moved back and forth.
The Last Five Years tells a tale that is both humorous and heartbreaking, woeful and wistful. These are not heroes and heroines – they are two humans caught up in this thing known as living and loving. By the end of the performance, Martinez and Hall have taken the audience on a journey full of faults, flaws, fascination, fondness, first-dates, first novels and a snake named Wayne. What more could you want?
The Last Five Years continues Friday and Saturday at 7pm and Sunday at 2pm at The Studio Theatre.