By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy
Running Time: 1 hour and 30 minutes with no intermission
Disclaimer: This production of The Last Five Years at Stillpointe Theatre is presented with two casts. I was only able to experience one cast and will be reviewing the cast I saw – Cast B, I believe (though my program stated I was seeing Cast A), consisting of Danny Bertaux as Jamie and Jessica Bennett as Cathy.
Baltimore has some pretty awesome theatre going on right now in intimate and larger theatre across this charming city, but in this particular go-round, Stillpointe Theatre‘s latest offering, The Last Five Years by Jason Robert Brown, Directed by Darius K. McKeiver, with Music Direction by Ben Shaver, Set Design by Ryan Haase, Costume Design by Heather Jackson, and Lighting Design by Adrienne Gieszl is superlative and is definitely a bit of theatre you do not want to miss.
The Last Five Years is about a five-year relationship between Jamie, a young, brilliant author and Cathy, an actress waiting for her break. It tells the story in an interesting way messing with the chronology as Cathy tells the story from end to beginning and Jamie’s story is from beginning to end. The two characters don’t interact much except for a song representing their wedding smack dab in the middle when the timelines actually intersect.
After seeing a couple of shows at Stillpointe Theatre, I’m impressed with their unique space. It’s intimate, but it works for their purposes and Set Design by Ryan Haase has not disappointed yet. He really knows this space and his design is exceptional for this production. He uses what space he has wisely and his modern and minimalist approach adds great value to this piece. Blending nicely with Adrienne Gieszl’s subtle but intelligent Lighting Design, the set is a character of its own. There are two upper levels on either side add variety (and a place for actors to change wardrobe, if need be). Most of the space is taken up by the orchestra, and a few chairs and an old upright piano accompany the actors, along with a few odds and end along the perimeter of the stage, but that’s all this piece needs and Haase doesn’t overdo it with clutter. Once again, major kudos goes to Ryan Haase who has given us another innovative, creative, and modern design to tell a story.
Keeping with the modern/present day setting, Costume Design by Heather Jackson is smart and appropriate and does not hinder the action but helps it along. Both actors look comfortable in their wardrobe and each costume is fitting of whichever scene it accompanies. Some may think it can’t be difficult to costume a present-day piece, but, it’s a little harder than you think. There are many points to consider such as what is going on in the scene or what kind of personality does the character have? Jackson seems to understand her characters and has worked nicely with her actors to give an excellent Costume Design.
Please indulge me and let me take a moment to dote over Music Direction by Ben Shaver and the exceptional orchestra for this beautiful piece. Shave just got it. He had his cast sounding on point throughout the entire piece and his orchestra, whom he conducted as well, was just a superb. He understands this music and he got the maximum performance out of his actors. The orchestra, consisting of Ben Shaver on Piano, Trevor Shipley on Guitar, Cody Raum on Bass (standup bass, mind you), Livy Amouruso on Violin, and the dashing Steven Bainbridge on Cello fills the space with Jason Robert Brown’s music and are impeccably balanced with the actors, not drowning them out, but not holding back, either. They are well rehearsed and didn’t miss one single cue that I caught, anyway. It is an absolute pleasure to hear these folks in action.
Director Darius K. McKeiver does an outstanding job in telling this story. It’s clear he understands the material and he keeps it relatable and simple for the audience while still keeping the complexity of the situation apparent. His casting choices are creative and non-traditional using an interracial cast (and an all female cast) which is refreshing for a piece like this which is usually cast with a Caucasian man and woman, not to say that wouldn’t have been just as effective, but non-traditional casting is usually a pleasant surprise and it definitely worked for this piece. McKeiver keeps the action moving and the pace of this piece is flawless. There isn’t an intermission, but I didn’t even notice because the piece moved along so nicely. McKeiver has a good grasp on these characters and his guidance for this well-thought out and well put-together production is excellent.
As Jamie, Danny Bertaux knocks it out of the ballpark with this one. He grasps the character nicely and comprehends his objectives and runs with it. Bertaux has such a big presence on the stage, he seems to overdo it at first, but the space is intimate, so it just seems that way so he balances out his performance as the piece progresses. The role of Jamie has its challenges, but Bertaux meets every one of them confidently and gives a stellar performance. Vocally, he is a powerhouse, filling the entire space with a rich tone and impressive range and it’s a joy to watch and listen to him in this production.
Taking on the role of Cathy, Jessica Bennett is exquisite. I was enthralled from the first beautiful note that came out of this woman’s mouth. She’s comfortable in this role and has a great command of the stage. She gives a strong, stand out vocal performance and her interpretation of each song is authentic and exudes emotion without going too far. I could feel Bennet’s pain or happiness in each of her numbers and she brings me into her performance, embodying this character of Cathy. It is a privilege to experience her solid performance.
Understanding the nature of this piece, Bertaux and Bennet actually don’t have much close interaction aside from a song or two in the middle of this piece. That being said, they both do such a fantastic job with their character and the material, I can feel their connection every moment from beginning to end, which is a feat as the characters are on different timelines and have a lot of solo work. The superb handling of this piece is a credit to these two actors.
Final thought… It is not my intention to over pander to this production but a good production is a good production and The Last Five Years is a show that needs to go to the top of your list of shows to see this season. It’s some of the best theatre happening in Baltimore at the moment and it’s a poignant, emotion-filled piece that is presented beautifully with an insanely talented cast and a superb orchestra to back them up. It is a minimal but complete and immersive production that is easy to relate and connect with and will touch you deeply. Get your tickets while they last.
This is what I thought of Stillpointe Theatre’s production of The Last Five Years… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!
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