The Manchester Community Theatre Players’ Second Stage company uses the stage like an actor to help tell the story in romantic musical comedy The Last Five Years.
The musical explores the five-year relationship of Jamie Wellerstein, a rising novelist, and Cathy Hyatt, a struggling actress. However, why a relationship ends often depends on who you ask. The story is told by both participants but it is told at different points in the relationship. Jamie begins at the beginning, while Cathy discusses the relationship from the end and moves backward. As the musical goes on they eventually meet in the middle at their wedding.
Hearing a story being told out of chronological order can be confusing, if it’s not done carefully. That is why Alan D. Kaplan of the Manchester Community Theatre Players said the stage will help keep everything in order. The stage is made to look like a five-year clock that can run in both directions. Its lighting also expresses the emotion of that particular moment in the relationship. For example, the left side of the stage, which is where Jamie stands, is bright and shows the possibilities of love. The right side, where Cathy stands at the end of the relationship, is darker.
“The actors work their way around the clock toward each other,” Kaplan said. “Until they meet in Central Park at their wedding.” It is in the park, after Jamie’s proposal, that the two sing together for the first time.
“It is a unique story,” Kaplan said. “Not only in terms of time sequence and telling but because the audience will have its own emotional feelings. Almost everyone has had a relationship of some degree. Many of those have not worked out.”
The musical was written by Jason Robert Brown and premiered in Chicago in 2001. While Kaplan described the music in the production as outstanding, he did say it was tough.
“In terms of vocals, it is very complex,” Kaplan said. “It is demanding for the performers and they have no support from a chorus. They are primarily solo pieces.”
The actors (Arielle Kaplan plays Cathy and Shawn Koczarski plays Jamie; they are the only two in the cast, according to Kaplan) can’t rely on the stage for much help either. Kaplan said it is not a show where they can go out and depend on props and lighting. It comes down to acting.
That isn’t to say there isn’t some use of special effects. Kaplan said the musical utilizes a scrim, which is a light textile often used in theater as a sort of curtain. Kaplan explained that if the scrim is lit in front and unlit from behind then action in front of the scrim can be seen. However, if it is lit only from behind, the scrim becomes transparent and the action behind the scrim is visible. Kaplan said this creates an easy and smooth way to move from one scene to another.
But in the end, Kaplan said, the musical touches people because it is easy to relate to and is an adult love story. Many of the themes in the musical are common enough. In fact, Brown modeled the story after his own failed marriage to Theresa O’Neill.
In the musical, not only is the storytelling going in different directions but so are the lives of the two main characters. As Jamie’s career begins to take off, he is faced with more temptation. As Cathy continues to fail as an actress, life becomes more depressing. Both believe the other is not supportive during success and failure. The mix of happiness and sadness makes even simply reading the plot emotional.
“We perform to have people enjoy the entertainment,” Kaplan said. “From an artistic standpoint we feel this production really touches the creative process. But it is also important from a personal standpoint. We all live through relationships. Some moments are great and others are trying. At the end of the musical, each character is able to move on and live lives with meanings. This is an important lesson.”