Theater

The Rules Do Not Apply: The Little Theatre of Fall River’s “The Last Five Years”

“If I hadn’t believed in you I wouldn’t have loved you at all”

One of the great ironies that’ll be written about when people start assessing what the performing arts was like during the pandemic is that most of us only started figuring out how to do this whole digital theater thing right as the light was appearing at the end of the tunnel. I remember speaking to someone a year ago about what kind of shows could be produced successfully without an audience and with limited resources, and the answer came back, “Anything but a musical.”

And yet, we’ve seen that proven false with a string of recent productions that have found just the right mixture of intimacy and theatricality to make a digital musical not just work, but, well, sing.

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The latest comes from The Little Theatre of Fall River. The company has made a name for itself over the past few years for reaching outside the predictable slew of titles that get mountings on smaller stages, but right in the sweet spot between “cult classic” and “beloved” is Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years.

The show is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, and wow, does it continue to hold up. After premiering in Chicago in 2001, it played Off-Broadway and quickly became the most talked-about show among musical theater aficionados and the most performed show in musical theater auditions.

It follows Jamie, a writer, and Cathy, an actress, as they navigate the highs and lows of dating and then marriage. The show begins with Cathy having just learned that Jamie has left her only to transition into Jamie’s experience of just having met Cathy. The musical moves forward and backward, only allowing the two characters to meet when they reach the middle of the story.

The Last Five Years has become a go-to for smaller theaters because it’s both a performance powerhouse with two of the best roles in musical theater and requires virtually nothing in the way of spectacle, although I thought Little Theatre did a great job of finding the balance in a design that’s effective while understanding that what might read well in front of an audience needs to be even more detailed if you’re going to put it on film.

The set design by Nathan Tarantino had all that detailing, as did the lighting from David Faria. The video quality was excellent, and I thought the sound quality was some of the best I’ve seen from a digital production, so Jose Cabral deserves a lot of praise for that, as well as for co-stage managing with Pat Taylor, who also handled props.

Tarantino’s direction and music direction are commendable. It’s really easy to make the mistake of over-directing a show that allows for this much interpretation, but he let his actors shine, while not allowing for self-indulgence, which is another major trap when a show is so heavily focused on performance and emotion. High praise also should be heaped onto the musicians, Michael Coelho (conductor), Eli Bigelow (piano), William Buonocore (guitar), Sam Kurzontkowski (bass), and Sarah Nichols (cello).  They sounded absolutely gorgeous.

Adina Lundquist has the unenviable task of taking Cathy from the present to the past, as well as finding a way to make her something outside of the desperate and high-strung actress stereotype. She gets her most dramatic moment two songs into the show, and from there, slides backward from heartbroken and frustrated to lovestruck and hopeful (wonderful if you’re Cathy, tough if you’re whoever is playing her). Lundquist hit all the right notes in the early part of the show, both dramatically and musically. She has a fantastic voice that just got better and better as she reached some of Cathy’s more vocally gymnastic moments. What I loved about her performance was the approach she took in Cathy’s younger scenes, where instead of just being bubbly and cheerful, you see that she’s someone who has to strive to trust. Yes, she’s falling in love, but she’s also steeling herself for every outcome, and so the end result doesn’t seem as jarring as it does inevitable, which is ultimately far more tragic.

While Cathy delivers her narrative from the end to the beginning, Jamie gets to present his version of their relationship in a more linear way. That doesn’t make portraying him any easier. Whereas Cathy can be a rollercoaster of insecurity and passion, Jamie is a series of contradictions. Playing him requires knowing what he’s saying, what he means, and what he feels — and rarely are the three neatly lined up. Jason Cabral is perfectly suited for the part. He manages to make Jamie’s neurosis charming, his ambition relatable, and his path away from Cathy as understandable as one can make it. His vocal choices on “Shiksa Goddess” heighten the song’s comedy, and his “Schmuel Song” performance are both highlights.

A show about love out of time is so apt for the moment, I’m surprised it took us a year to see it produced locally, but I’m glad it’s in such fine form. The nuance of Brown’s music and lyrics, the crisp direction, and the knockout performances all resonate even if you’re watching from a living room television or a laptop. While the show isn’t necessarily one that’ll leave you smiling, it will have you eager to see live theater when it returns and thrilled we have productions like these to keep us enthralled while we wait.

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