Blessed with a terrific pair of leads, The Last Five Years makes a welcome return in this affecting involving and insightful production.
An eighty-minute two-hander, The Last Five Years is relatively simple to stage, it success relying on casting and direction. It would be difficult to surpass the talent, charisma and appeal of stars Verity Hunt-Ballard and Josh Piterman in this new production from Vic Theatre Company.
An innovative, and highly revered, musical from Jason Robert Brown, the simple scenario is enhanced with a surprisingly effective twist. Tracking the joy and heartbreak of a five-year relationship, Jamie’s story begins with the excitement of new love and moves forward, while Cathy’s journey moves backward from the end of the couple’s marriage.
A brilliantly matched pair, Hunt-Ballard and Piterman deliver pristine vocals and nuanced, natural acting performances that succeed in presenting the flaws and strengths of both characters in equal measure. There are no heroes or villains, just two people whose love burns brightly and is extinguished just as quickly.
In a masterstroke of realism, director Chris Parker eschews the usual music theatre convention of cheating front, instead having the actors interact naturally. Curved around the front of the stage, the audience has the sense of being a fly on the wall, eager to enjoy the high points of Cathy and Jamie’s relationship whilst also unable to avoid the disappointment of its dissolution.
On an economical, neatly effective set from Daniel Harvey, Parker hides various props that magically appear as the characters require them. The wooden floorboards of fortyfivedownstairs suit the apartment setting, and the absence of a proscenium arch matches the casual, natural vibe. Lighting designer Tom Willis adds visual interest, and draws the eye as each vignette dissolves into the next.
Parker has clearly mined the libretto for full meaning and significance with his two actors, resulting a fresh take on the well-known text. While each song is assigned to one of the characters, Parker makes supportive use of the other player while still keeping the focus on the singer. The show is subtly updated through the use of Skype and FaceTime. In a particularly clever touch, the central wedding song “The Next Ten Minutes” focuses more on the proposal, and sees the couple simply make their vows to each other on a picnic rug.
Musical director Daniel Puckey creates a nicely textured accompaniment with strings, guitar and keyboard. While it is a classy touch that the musicians come on stage to take a bow, it is a regrettable oversight that their names are omitted from the program.
From the moment Cathy finds the note and key from Jamie, Hunt-Ballard conveys the fragility and vulnerability that instantly endears Cathy to the audience. With her self-effacing approach to her acting career, Cathy provides much of the gentle humour of the show, and Hunt-Ballard nails this expertly. As Cathy spends “A Summer in Ohio,” Hunt-Ballard’s delivery of a trunk full of clichéd dance steps (provided by guest choreographer Michael Ralph) is deliciously funny, as is her delivery of Cathy’s inner monologue of insecurities in “The Audition Sequence.”
Piterman tones down his glossy appearance to play unshaven, fluffy-haired writer Jamie. Piterman begins Jamie’s romantic trajectory with such effusive joy that it is impossible to dislike the character’s later somewhat caddish, self-focused behaviour. Piterman delivers colourful character voices as he tells a story in “The Schmuel Song,” and brings a striking beauty to Jamie’s reading of an excerpt from his novel. Over and above his excellent acting skills, Piterman’s singing voice is in peak form, and he soars through the score with a quality that can only be described as being of Broadway standard.
Much as many of their songs are performed individually, Hunt-Ballard and Piterman enjoy warm, playful chemistry. The heart rending final image of radiant hope on Cathy’s face as Jamie ruefully leaves the note and keys is perfectly judged and beautifully delivered.
Fans of The Last Five Years will find as much to enjoy as newcomers to the material. Either way, this is a charming production that no Melbourne music theatre fan should miss.
The Last Five Years plays at 45 Downstairs, Melbourne until 11 December 2016.
Photos: James Terry