Sunday, April 26, 2015


The Last Five Years

Written and composed by Jason Robert Brown. Directed by Richard Block. Choreographed by Hannah McFadden. Musical Director Damien Slingsby. Teatro Vivaldi. ANU. April 24 - May 2.

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

Vanessa de Jager plays Cathy Hiatt
Photo by Pete Stiles
In a relatively small city that abounds with theatre companies, a new emerging company faces a number of challenges, not the least of which is the availability of talent and the opportunity to launch the company with a new show in an appropriate venue and with the support of the community.
Canberra entrepreneur, Richard Block has launched his new company, Dramatic Productions, at the delightfully charming and intimate Teatro Vivaldi, where Canberrans have come to be assured of fine food, good wines and first class entertainment. For his premier production, Block has chosen to direct the little known two hand American musical, The Last Five Years, written and composed by Jason Robert Brown. It is a sensible choice, given its Off Broadway nature that fits ideally into a venue such as Teatro Vivaldi. It is a conservative choice, given that it features only two performers, a small band, a  simple setting and a moderate budget. It is wise for a new company to start small and grow and good things can come in small packages. However, it is also a risk. The musical may not be well-known and pale into the shadows compared to some of the more popular and spectacular musicals that have been recently staged by such established companies as Free Rain, Supa, Canberra Philharmonic and Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre.
Block is no wilting flower when it comes to promotion, both of his own work and Canberra’s rich tapestry of performing arts through his website, Stagecenta. I imagine that he has weighed up the risks, and forged ahead with solutions that have guaranteed an inaugural production that is sure to win acclaim and ensure Dramatic Productions a secure place in Canberra’s rich and diverse theatre scene.
Vanessa De Jager as Cathy Hiatt
Photo by Pete Stiles
The Last Five Years is unabashedly American. It explores the fractious relationship within a marriage, purported to be Brown’s own, and traces the roller-coaster ride from its passionate, love-struck beginning to its eventual disintegration and all the conflicts, frustrations and irritations that pitch career aspirations against relationship expectations and needling insecurities. It is a journey that may be readily identifiable, and one that permeates many Off Broadway musicals. That may be a generalization, but The Last Five Years is not without its fair share of navel-gazing. Some may empathize with struggling actress Cathy Hiatt (Vanessa de Jager) and there may be many males in the audience who fail to see where  Jamie Wellerstein (Fraser Findlay) went wrong. Seen it all before?
Not quite. Brown cleverly flips convention to show the audience Cathy at the moment that their marriage breaks down (Still Hurting) and Jamie at the first meeting  (Shiksa Goddess). From there each song takes us back to the beginning for Cathy and forward for Jamie at the time of his parting note and departure. Only at their engagement (The Next Ten Minutes) do Cathy and Jamie come together in the same time period at the end of the first act.
Fraser Findlay as Jamie Wellerstein
Photo by Pete Stiles
What then makes this production such a success, which it undoubtedly is, and I would suggest a music theatre highlight in the intimate musical category? Brown’s two way travel through the marriage helps. So too does the ambience of Teatro Vivaldi. Musical director Damien Slingsby's arrangements of Brown’s score certainly helps as the primarily sung narrative lurches through a host of genres from pop to reggae to jazz with tributes to Hamlisch, Sondheim, Kander and Ebb  and other trail-blazing American music theatre composers.
Where Block has struck gold, however, is in the casting. Vanessa de Jager has already established herself as a leading light upon the music theatre stage. Not only can she sing like a diva, but every pore of her being charts the emotional and psychological pain and pleasure of Cathy Hiatt’s turbulent experience, whether in the relationship (I’m Still Hurting) or at the audition (Climbing Uphill) or at that liberating freedom from her origins (I Can Do Better Than That)

Vanessa De Jager as Cathy Hiatt
Photo by Pete Stiles
A relative newcomer to the Canberra Music Theatre stage, Fraser Findlay is a phenomenal find. His professional resume reaches from Glasgow to New York and back to Europe and Dubai. What is impressive on paper is well-proven  on stage. His Wellerstein explodes with the self-centred, neurotic obsession of the writer, battling ambition and creativity with the demands of marriage and responsibility. From his idiosyncratic rendition of Moving Too Fast, it is obvious that Jamie is on the road to a doomed future. Findlay flicks the song’s rhythms to suit his character’s eccentricity with a bursting energy and charismatic individuality that holds an audience on every note of his unpredictable story.
Fraser Findlay as Jamie Wellerstein and Vanessa De Jager as Cathy Hiatt
Photo by Pete Stiles
Together, de Jager and Findlay burn with the chemistry of volatility and fluid passion. It is a sheer delight being thoroughly engaged by two such consummate artists and astounded by de Jager’s costume changes. Director Block has double cast the show and next week two other local Music Theatre favourites Josie Dunham and Matthew Chardon O’Dea will take the roles of Hiatt and Wellerstein. That makes the show worth a second visit.
Fraser Findlay in The Last Five Years. Photo by Pete Stiles
The Last Five Years is a wise choice for a fledgling company , launching itself upon a vibrant music theatre scene. Block has decided to stage it as a theatre piece with a box set tucked in a corner of Teatro Vivaldi’s and mikes for the two actors, both of whom should be capable of filling the space without the aid of electronic sound. Apart from some difficulty with the sound levels on opening night, miked numbers in the small space lost the potential poignancy in certain songs. Block has directed the show for a larger space . In the cabaret  environment of Teatro Vivaldi this seemed unnecessary and probably could have been staged with less expense.
Vanessa De Jager in The Last Five Years. Photo by Pete Stiles
This aside, Dramatic Productions has made an impressive debut with The Last Five Years. In August, Block launches into the bigtime with Sondheim’s massive challenge, Into The Woods at Gunghalin College. If he can cast that as well as he has done with The Last Five Years, and gather together the team that has brought this show to Canberra audiences, then here is a company to swell the excellent reputation of music theatre in Canberra and Queanbeyan.