CC2_1904.jpg: Bronwen Hupp and Christopher Dybash star in “The Last 5 Years.” Photo: The Box Theatre
It’s a story that’s all-too familiar: Two people meet, they fall in love, they marry, they encounter a few problems and they divorce. So what makes “The Last 5 Years” at The Box Theatre different from the hundreds of other boy-meets-girl stories you’ve read or seen over the years?
Playwright Jason Robert Brown tackles the five-year relationship between up-and-coming novelist Jamie Wellerstein and struggling actress Cathy Hyatt from two perspectives: his and hers. So what’s so unique about that, you may be wondering? When we meet Cathy, it’s at the end of their relationship – and her story moves chronologically backward in time so that we see the result of their actions before understanding their causes. (It’s like reconstructing a crime scene.) Jamie’s story, though, is told from the beginning – and as such, many of the blanks from Cathy’s story are filled in as his story moves forward in time. The result, then, becomes a complete picture of the rise and fall of this once-loving relationship.
But that’s not all. Brown’s concept has yet another challenge for directors and actors: The characters never interact with one another except once when their timelines cross midway through the production. (If one character appears in another’s scene, it’s usually as a memory. Or as a physical anchor to help focus the scene.)
And did I mention “The Last 5 Years” is a two-person musical? With very little dialogue?
So as you might imagine, any theater company wanting to stage “The Last 5 Years” must find two people who can not only sing the occasionally Sondheim-like tunes, but also hold an audience’s attention through 90 minutes of back-to-back solo numbers.
Plus, at The Box Theatre, there’s yet another level of difficulty that must be overcome: The black box space is so intimate that much of the action takes place mere inches from the audience. So not only must the actors create believable characters who experience a wide range of emotions, they also have to find the correct levels at which to play them, or risk creating caricatures that are way too large for such a small venue.
But only minutes into a recent Saturday night performance it became obvious that director Kevin Fitzhenry and vocal director Eric Swanson understood the enormous task before them – and as a result, they delivered a thoroughly delightful and totally engaging night of theater in Downtown Mount Clemens.
In fact, of all the shows I’ve reviewed at The Box Theatre since its inception, this is without a doubt the slickest.
From its best set yet to the excellent three-piece band, everything about the production is top notch – especially for a young company with a rather tight budget to work with. (The lighting was fairly basic, however, and there were a few miscues, but what the heck; they didn’t detract from the performance.)
However, the strong and emotionally powerful performances of Bronwen Hupp and Christopher Dybash are what earned the production its standing ovation. Both proved they are fully capable of mastering the show’s various musical styles, and each conquered the emotional roller coaster their characters ride throughout the night.
A few suggestions might prove helpful in future performances, however. The show is staged with the audience seated on three sides of the performance area, and Hupp’s sweet, occasionally soft voice needs to be a little louder when she’s facing either of the two sides. (I was seated stage left and had a difficult time hearing her when she faced stage right.) And contrary to what’s taught in most college theater programs – designed for larger theaters, of course – Dybash might want to pull back his facial expressions a little during his more emotional moments. Playing to the back of the house at The Box Theatre means you’re addressing someone less than 10 feet away rather than 25 or 30 rows. That difference – from an acting perspective – is significant!
So despite the fact Cathy and Jamie’s marriage falls apart, The Box Theatre continues to mature and grow. And I suspect they’ll have packed houses for the rest of the run – which means you better reserve your tickets early!
‘The Last 5 Years’
What’s That Smell? at The Box Theater, 51 N. Walnut St., Mount Clemens. Jan. 21-23, 27-30 & Feb. 3-4. $16-$18. 586-954-2311.