Writer and Composer: Jason Robert Brown. The Mitchell Old Company (TMOC). Director: Mitchell Old. Pioneer Theatre, Castle Hill. February 11 – 14, 2021
Reviewed : 11 February, 2021
Mitchell Old is a talented young man with enormous courage and tenacity. Fancy deciding to establish a new theatre company in the middle of a pandemic when theatres had been closed for months and the arts devasted! But the Mitchell Old Theatre Company (TMOC) was founded as a direct response to that devastation.
With the support of a cohort of equally talented and committed young people, the TMOC set about providing opportunities for emerging creatives to “express themselves and develop their craft.” This production of Jason Robert Brown’s musical The Last Five Years is the first step in achieving that goal.
The Last Five Years has developed a cult following since it premiered in Chicago in 2001. It has been produced in more than twenty-seven countries and was adapted for the screen in 2014. It seemed the perfect choice for TMOC’s first production. Why? Firstly, it is COVID safe! There are only two performers and they are very seldom on the stage at the same time. Secondly it is about a young couple looking back over a love affair that has gone wrong … so it has romantic audience appeal. Thirdly, the music is enticing. A perfect combination to tempt audiences back into the theatre … and give actors and musicians the opportunity to ply their craft.
The Pioneer Theatre at Castle Hill provides an equally COVID safe setting. The wide stage allows Old and assistant musical director Matthew Ling to follow restrictions by dividing the six piece orchestra, placing the violin (Shanela De Mel) and two cellos (Elizabeth Ferris and Michelle Stafurik) on one side of the stage and the keyboard (Zachary Setiadi), guitar (Monjie Echevarria) and bass guitar (Matthew Ling) on the other. Creative lighting allowed Old to conduct both areas from stage left and meant that all six musicians were an integral part of the performance.
Hannah Alexander and Andrew Schimmer played Cathy Hiatt and Jamie Wellerstein – the young couple who have been together for the “last five years”. Cathy looks back on those years from the ‘end’ and she is “Still Hurting”. Jamie starts at the beginning tracing the first stirring of love until his ambition leads him astray – and away. It’s an unusual format, typical of Jason Robert Brown’s approach to musical theatre. His music is eclectic, its rhythms and tones reflecting the emotional journey of the young lovers. His lyrics are clear, allowing the performers to sing – and act – effectively and expressively.
Alexander finds that expression in a sensitive portrayal of Cathy, especially in “See I’m Smiling” and “Audition Sequence”. She has a clear, gentle voice that finds the plaintive notes that show both Cathy’s love and her hurt.
Wellerstein revels in the more zippy tunes Robert Brown uses to trace Jamie’s rise to literary fame. He is an energetic performer who also finds the humour – and the anguish of the music and the lyrics. His interpretation of “The Schmuel Song” and “Nobody Needs to Know” are highlights of his performance.
Set designer Josh Dewberry suggests the young couple’s apartment by using bookcases as a backdrop. In the pre-show lighting, the audience sees the paraphernalia of their five short years together reflected in an arrangement of books, theatre programs, a vase of flowers, a globe, photo frames and a clock. Stage crew are kept busy moving a variety of (sometimes unnecessary) props on and off the stage as the Cathy and Jamie each share their memories.
The cast and crew of this production are young – their average age is just twenty – yet their talent and commitment to their art and this production are incredibly strong. Even an evacuation alarm that saw the whole building – the theatre, the adjacent library and the apartments above it – vacated fifteen minutes before curtain up didn’t seem to phase them. Some problems with light cues will need to be tightened up but other than that, this production is a credit to Mitchell Old and his enthusiastic new company.