EMU Theatre presents 'The Last Five Years'

EMU student performers Kristin McSweeney, Kayla Younkin, Brendan Kelly, and Matt Wallace.

Jason Robert Brown’s musical, “The Last Five Years,” recently ended its two-week run on EMU’s Mainstage, and was without a doubt one of EMU’s best productions.

Brown’s music, like Stephen Sondheim’s, is notoriously difficult to play and sing, so performing his musicals is always an ambitious undertaking. And since “The Last Five Years” is written for only two characters, it means the heavy lifting is done by two actors who are never off-stage for more than a couple of minutes at a time.

EMU’s theatre program took on the challenges, and produced something breathtaking, heartbreaking and beautiful on every level.

The plot, a couple working through the ups and downs of a five-year relationship, is another challenge, because it doesn’t follow a chronological, linear structure. We follow both characters’ journeys separately, with struggling actress Cathy’s perspective beginning at the end of their relationship and going back to their first date, and up-and-coming writer Jamie’s starting after that first date and moving to their breakup. The two actors only interact with each other directly in the middle of the musical, when Jamie proposes to Cathy and they get married.

In a typical production of “The Last Five Years,” this means that each actor is alone onstage for much of the show. But thanks to Pam Cardell’s skillful directing, in the EMU production they each had someone else to play off of. Cardell added two more actors to the production as assorted, non-speaking characters – Cathy’s father, Jamie’s lover, their friends, etc. - to help flesh out the story.

On the first weekend, the roles of Jamie and Cathy were played with skillful exuberance, passion and physicality by Brendan Kelly and Kristin McSweeney, while Matthew Wallace and Kayla Younkin played the various supporting characters.

On the second weekend, Kelly and McSweeney took over the ensemble parts while Wallace and Younkin brought a darker, more intensely stoic, but no less brilliant energy to Jamie and Cathy. All four were stunning singers and passionate actors, they made for a perfect cast.

The four actors navigated their way through Brown’s exquisite pop, rock and jazz infused contemporary musical theatre score with the help of a fantastic four-piece pit orchestra,  which was led by EMU theatre and music professor R. MacKenzie Lewis. In addition to Lewis’ nimble and sensitive piano playing, the band boasted stellar playing from David Shann on violin, Nick Martin on guitar, and Ruby Brallier on cello.

The musical was further enhanced by the visual aspects of the production. Bobby Glowacki’s lighting design was beautifully subtle, stepping into the metaphoric spotlight while using the real one sparely, only when needed. His use of silhouette was especially striking.

John Charles’ extremely effective set was a series of tall, rectangular panels staggered across the stage, on which evocative projections, designed by Dustin Miller and Haley Jugowicz. The panels displayed images of sunlight through bedroom curtains, the words of letter Jamie writes to Cathy, a deserted highway, the NYC skyline, and more. Madeleine Huggins’ costumes were not flashy, but, whether casual or dressy, were just what the characters needed.

“The Last Five Years” is touching poignant, and often funny, and this production made the most of every note of the emotional scale.

“I loved everything about this unique and moving musical – the writing, set, acting, and the band,” said EMU parent and alumna Brenda Miller. “I saw the show the first weekend, and was especially drawn in by the heartfelt vocal performances.”

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