Sunday, June 24, 2012

Ignatians' The Last 5 Years at QPAC

Jamie (Tim Dashwood) and Cathy (Bethan Ellsmore) in Ignatian's The Last Five Years (Source: QPAC).
If I had to summarise Ignatians Musical Society's The Last 5 Years in one word, it would be 'ambitious.' I entered QPAC wanting to love the piece, and although it had plenty of worthwhile elements and was a decent staging, it had some flaws that really detracted from the overall experience.

Directed by Travis Dowling, The Last 5 Years is about an ill-fated romance between upcoming writing superstar Jamie Wellerstein (Tim Dashwood), and struggling actress Cathy Hyatt (Bethan Ellsmore). The progression of the story is told from two concurrent perspectives, beginning at opposite sides; Jamie's beginning with the victory of meeting the woman of his dreams, Cathy's being with her lamenting the disintegration of their marriage. The show is almost entirely sung through, and the actors only interact for a brief interlude in the middle to consummate their marriage.

Jason Robert Brown's music is varied in styles, from the cocktail faux-jazz 'A Summer in Ohio' to the klezmer flared 'Shiksa Goddess'. Some songs feel unnecessarily long winded ('Nobody Needs to Know', 'Moving Too Fast') but overall the score incorporates light motifs into its own memorable and distinct indie pop category. His lyrics are clever, occasionally crass and insipid ('A Summer in Ohio', 'I Can Do Better Than That'), but usually colourful and overall he manages to capture a narrative and storyline, and develop character. While it lacks some distinct intricacies and complexity of other modern musicals, the score exposes an intense emotional honesty and vulnerability.

I didn't particularly enjoy the performance from the two actors, both of who possessed a formidable range and belt but were excessively nasal. A really problematic feature of the production was that a good portion of the music wasn't effectively sung since the actors were busy trying to communicate FEELINGS! Being unable to deliver the emotions effectively was irritating and really compromised the enjoyability of the score. Although there is an abundance of American references and the piece is set in New York, adopting the native accent felt pretty jarring and was kitsch at best. Most regrettably, the chemistry that the text demands to create an emotionally engaging and stimulating narrative was pretty much non-existent, and subsequently the piece just felt like a sequence of catchy but loosely unified songs.

The piece definitely had some stunning moments. The actors were trying their hardest and some scenes were brought to life with great élan. Ellsmore draws the most laughs with her colourful and neurotic wails in 'Climbing Uphill' and Dashwood's 'A Miracle Would Happen' is laced with delicious cynicism. The highlight was appropriately placed at the end, with Ellsmore's dizzy and breathlessness characterisation in 'Goodbye Until Tomorrow,' which is impossibly infectious and exquisitely accompanied by the band. nder the direction of piano wizard Ben Murray, the six-piece musical ensemble was sensational. The score was tremendously vibrant and a huge and well-deserved applause was delivered to the band in the bows - special mention needs to be given to the string section, Emma Chapman, Daniel Smerdon and Ruby Rose Hunter, who blitzed out these impossibly airy and difficult rifts. I've never heard the score delivered with such vibrancy and sensitivity, and in this performance it was perfect.

There were a few microphone scuffs, which unfortunately obliterated the fragile intimacy in some places, but overall the mixing was excellent with a perfect balance on all musical parts. The set was intimate and perplexing, adorned with piles of books and uneven furniture, and the edges of the stage resembled the foundations of a house and the interrupted, incomplete and imperfect home that the couple had created. Combined with delicate and precise lighting which created a variety of spaces through lights and shadows, it was a really inspired staging of the piece. 

This staging of The Last 5 Years had a lot of potential, and while it boasts some engaging moments, accompanied by a seriously awesome live band and based in a great set, the production is pretty unfulfiling due to the character portrayals and direction they've been taken in. A really solid and ambitious effort by Ignatians under the direction of Dowling, and it is something I'd recommend people go to see, but not the most ingenious rendition of this musical and I did leave wishing that segments had been done drastically differently.

Tickets for Ignatians Musical Society's The Last 5 Years are $25-$54, and is showing at the Cremorne Theatre, QPAC until June 23rd. Duration of approximately 70 minutes. Book by visiting QTIX website.

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