by Jeff Karlson
As my wife and I don our masks and enter the Kayhi building, we are greeted with a warm welcome from a familiar veteran of the theater, who cheerfully takes our temperature and confirms that we are clear to enter. We are then provided with our very own private escort to guide us to our seats, which bear a pair of programs waiting for us to thumb through them. Our nearest neighbors are seated well over six feet away. All of this is of course to ensure the safety of the audience and performers, but it really feels like First City Players has gone above and beyond to make these protocols feel less like restrictions, and more like we have been invited to a VIP exclusive viewing of a high-profile performance of Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years.
The house dims to darkness as the stage lights reveal a minimalist set (designed by Keith Smith). An arrangement of various sized blocks, painted white, provide contrast and dimension to a backdropped silhouette of the New York City skyline. With a subtle breath and a wave of his bow, Musical Director/Bassist Chazz Gist cues in the first notes of the show. A piano begins with a sweet and innocent sounding waltz, like something you’d hear while watching a child wave from a carousel horse, or perhaps like a melody from a music box with a ballerina in it. As a spotlight illuminates a woman on stage, the waltz gives way to sonorous strings playing a series of chords. The notes form a melody that sounds as if it’s overflowing with memory—and regret. The woman is looking down toward the floor as she fidgets with a ring on her left hand. Her voice is soft and burdened with disappointment as she reveals that her partner has moved on, and she is left brokenhearted.
The Last Five Years has a cast of two: Catherine “Cathy” Hiatt (Jillian Pollock) and Jamie Wellerstein (Kyle G. Bailey). The show gives us a glimpse into the relationship they share over the course of five years, one that feels all too familiar to anyone who has ever loved deeply and suffered from a broken heart. We get to appreciate those gleeful and whimsical first months of infatuation where each can do no wrong in the eyes of their partner; we’re shown the moments of deep love and sympathy when they are challenged to support one another through difficult times; and finally, we witness the unraveling of the relationship when trusts are broken, and the personality quirks that used to be charming or cute become all but intolerable. The twist here is that Cathy’s timeline starts at the end of the relationship and moves backward through time as the play unfolds, while Jamie’s perspective is revealed as time flows forward.
Now bear with me for a moment, because I’d like to bring you back to my last review on the Goldberg Variations, in which I briefly mentioned that Bach wrote what I referred to as “musical games.” As a party trick, Bach would sketch out a single melody and put it on a table. Then, two musicians would sit at opposite sides of the table and perform the piece, reading the music from their opposing perspectives. But here was the genius of it: for one of the musicians, the melody would be physically upside-down and backwards from what the other musician was playing, but it would also form a perfect harmony or countermelody to what had been originally written. This musical curiosity is known as table music.
Imagine yourself once again as a member of the audience viewing The Last Five Years. Brown has, in a sense, taken Bach’s concept and created an entire musical with it. The whole thing is, in many ways, one ninety-minute palindrome. This is not to say that, after the first half of the play is over, we begin to see and hear the same events occur in reverse; Brown’s writing is more artful than that. Brown simply inserts a subtle but distinct mirror directly in the middle of the musical. From there, listen for familiar musical themes and motives lacing the remaining composition, as emotions that were once felt by Cathy later grip Jamie, and vice versa. Even Brown’s lyrics begin to reflect upon themselves, bringing with them new meaning as the story progresses.
One might easily find themselves lost in the persistent undulation of the timeline if not for the imaginative staging provided by Director Elizabeth Nelson. The performance opens with Jamie and Cathy inhabiting opposite hemispheres of the set. From your seat in the audience, imagine the right side of the stage represents the future, while the left side embodies the past. As the palindromic story unfolds, the two timelines intersect for only a few fleeting moments at the center-pin of the story, where Jamie and Cathy find themselves holding each other’s hands as they inhabit the same space in the middle of the stage. This is the only time we’ll see the two of them touch, and the music that Brown scored to accompany the scene feels nebulous, full of rhythmic ambiguity. It leaves the audience with a sense that the passage of time has temporarily halted to allow us, and the two lovers on stage, to savor the small gift of their togetherness. Then, as Cathy and Jamie begin to part ways, time pulls them in opposite directions, and they take each other’s place in the opposite hemisphere of the stage, Jamie now singing into the future, and Cathy now singing into the past.
We’ve seen Pollock on the Kayhi stage before, but never like this. In her First City Player’s debut, we watched her make the lives of the Banks children decidedly less sweet as the evil nanny, Ms. Andrews, in Mary Poppins. Then we witnessed her attempt to thwart love, and seize power, as the vile sea-witch Ursula in The Little Mermaid. In both roles she definitively carved her name into the wall of Ketchikan theater fame, with her commanding stage presence and a vocal timbre of a quality I have seldom heard since my time in New York City. But in the role of Cathy, Pollock demonstrates that she is capable of adding subtlety and complexity to her characters. She brilliantly embodies the sweet and gentle nature of a young woman in love, while convincingly portraying the nuanced feeling of pride in her partner’s success as a novelist juxtaposed against her own failing aspirations of becoming a Broadway star. Here, Pollock takes full advantage of the opportunity to show us an emotional side that is often absent when playing a role of a classic villain: she breaks down the walls around her and shows vulnerability. Vocally, this part is more demanding than anything I’ve heard her do in the past, but at no point did I think to myself: That sounds hard. Pollock’s voice resonates from her toes to the ceiling like a pure column of sound, and she makes it seem effortless.
Meanwhile, Bailey exercises his extraordinary theatrical versatility yet again. You may remember the time he made us all smile with wondrous delight as he ascended the walls of the Kayhi stage to belt out the climax of “Step in Time” as Bert in Mary Poppins. Or the time he teased a tear or two from our eyes while playing Marius, lamenting the sacrifice of his friends to a failing revolution in “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables,” in Les Misérables. Most recently, he tugged at our heartstrings as Archibald Craven, the grieving widower in The Secret Garden. But as Jamie Wellerstein, Bailey’s professional training and Broadway experience is on full display from start to finish. In one humorous, yet touching, scene, Jamie is about to give a Christmas gift to Cathy, but first he tells her a story that he has written about an old Jewish tailor named Schmuel. As Bailey plays a character from within a character, he masterfully oscillates back and forth between Jamie’s subtle Brooklyn Jewish inflection and Schmuel’s thick Yiddish accent. Even more impressive, though, is Bailey’s display of vocal acrobatics throughout the show. In one moment, he fills the auditorium with a full and resonant chest voice and, in the next, he seamlessly transitions to a pure and remarkably stable falsetto.
Bailey and Pollock are supported by a small, but exceedingly talented, pit orchestra. This production requires each musician to pull double duty, and often more. Gist is tasked with not only directing the ensemble, but also playing stand-up bass, electric bass, and mandolin—a juggling act that he executes masterfully. Austin Hays tackles the keyboard and percussion with his usual rhythmic perfection, and when she isn’t doubling on the keyboard, Rachel Schoenfeld fits the sound of her cello so well into the warmth of Gist’s string bass that they quite often sound like one instrument. While Jamie Karlson is the sole musician saddled with only one instrument, her task is to make that sweet sounding flute of hers sound like a violin. (In a small town, fiddlers can sometimes be hard to come by. The score doesn’t include a flute at all, but rather a violin, and Karlson lives up to the task of bringing it to life). Throughout most of the show, I often forgot that a live pit orchestra was there, which I mean as an utmost compliment to the musicians. Their performance sounds like a seamless soundtrack to the drama that is unfolding on stage.
Now, if I’ve sufficiently piqued your interest, I have good news for you: you can still see the show! The Last Five Years final performances will be this upcoming weekend at Kayhi, on January 22nd and 23rd at 7:30 p.m.* That said, tickets are limited due to COVID-19 precautions, so if you want to see it live, I suggest making your purchase as soon as possible. You can get your tickets by either calling First City Players at (907) 225-4792 or sending them a message via Facebook or Instagram.
*Please note if you are unable to see the live show this weekend for any reason, First City Players will also be providing a virtual viewing later in February. Keep your eye out on their social media for more information!