Friday, May 1, 2015

THE LAST FIVE YEARS - REVISITED

The Last Five Years at Teatro Vivaldi

Written and composed by Jason Robert Brown. Directed by Richard Block. Musical Direction Damien Slingsby. Choreography Hannah McFadden. Costume design/Props Fiona Leach and Suzan Cooper. Lighting and Sound Berin Denham. Set design and construction Thompson Quan Wing. Teatro Vivaldi. April 24 - May 2 2015

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

Mathew Chardon O'Dea as Jamie Wellerstein. Josie Dunham as Cathy Hiatt in The Last Five Years

Photo by Pete Stiles

Producer/director Richard Block has made a bold decision when double casting Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years in his inaugural show for his new company Dramatic Productions. I have already reviewed the opening night at Teatro Vivaldi with Vanessa De Jager as Cathy Hiatt and Fraser Findlay as Jamie Wellerstein in Brown’s story of the rollercoaster relationship of the up and coming writer and the struggling, aspiring actress. However, I decided that it would be only fair to revisit the production with Mathew Chardon O’Dea and Josie Dunham in the roles. Block is seeking to establish his new company as a springboard for those who would aspire to become professional. In creating a double cast, he has offered the opportunity to four of Canberra’s finest music theatre performers. And such an initiative warrants critical comment.
Josie Dunham as Cathy  Photo by Pete Stiles
This is not a comparative analysis although subjective comparison is unavoidable. Long running professional productions will offer audiences different casts, and different casts will imbue a performance with new qualities and new perspectives. I was interested to note that I was less concerned with the staging of the work on a box set and with miked voices during this visit and more conscious of the prominence of musical director Damien Slingsby’s heavier hand upon the piano. Slingsby’s five piece ensemble with Dylan Slater on guitar, Jack Schwenke on Bass, Llewellyn Osborne on violin, Amy Jarvol on Cello and Slingsby on piano was as proficient as ever, but O’Dea and Dunham would have been vocally struggling without mikes in the intimate surrounds of alluring Teatro Vivaldi. As it was, both Dunham and O’Dea struggled initially with their breathing and lower registers on their opening night.
I was also intrigued to observe that I was more conscious of Rachel Thornton’s cameo appearance as the silent mistress in the bed during Jamie’s guilt-ridden Nobody Needs To Know. I was more attuned to the rollercoaster emotions of the couple’s precarious relationship. Brown’s clever device to trace Cathy’s backward journey from the final break-up of the marriage (Still Hurting) while allowing an audience to follow Jamie’s forward journey from the first meeting (Shiska Goddess) takes us on the fraught trajectory of effusive passion, loving commitment, conflicting expectation and eventual separation. In the duet at the close of the show this contrast is strikingly apparent as Cathy’s voice sings the excited passion of new love while Jamie leaves us with the lament of lost dreams. Pain and pleasure co-exist in the tortured harmony of life’s experience. Brown avoids over-sentimentalizing the situation, allowing his actors to discover truth in character and performance. This is the musical’s Off Broadway appeal and its instant ability to engage an audience, some of whom could well be a Cathy or a Jamie upon the stage.
Dunham and O’Dea bring a natural appeal to the roles. Dunham exudes vulnerability and insecurity. Her innocence and endearing love for Jamie is evident when she rejoices in I’m a Part of That. The sheer agony of exposing oneself during an audition is paramount in Climbing Uphill. O’Dea, on the other hand, captures perfectly the self-centred attitude of the ambitious, confident writer in Moving Too Fast. Wellerstein is a young man on the move, and O’Dea gives his character’s seductive charm full rein. His acting talent shines as he plays the bespoke tailor in The Schmuel Song with its lacing of Jewish humour and wisdom.
Mathew Chardon O'Dea as Jamie
Photo by Pete Stiles 
Dunham and O’Dea are natural cabaret performers and I hope that they may one day in the future reveal their full potential in a cabaret festival. Brown’s musical is a series of song monologues, covering a range of styles and presenting the singer with challenges. At their opening performance both O’Dea and Dunham tended towards moments of forcefulness to hit the range as first night nerves and uneven breathing gave rise to occasional difficulty in sustaining the lower register. This did little to detract from the performances. Both Dunham and O’Dea bring a sensitivity and intelligent maturity to the roles, and The Last Five Years proves a perfect vehicle for all four performers of Block’s production. Hopefully Canberra audiences will see a lot more of De Jager, Findlay, Dunham and O’Dea. Block has cast well for his inaugural production and Dramatic Productions holds great promise for a fine future. Don’t miss The Last Five Years. Sadly it is only playing until May 2nd at Teatro Vivaldi’s. Hurry down for fine food, good wine and first-rate entertainment.                

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