Review: The Last Five Years

Inclusive production gives the time between love and loss a mighty voice

(l-r) Carolyn O'Brien, Krissy Lemon, John Christopher, and Saúl López in Deaf Austin Theatre & Ground Floor Theatre's The Last Five Years (photo by Cindy Elizabeth)

Jason Robert Brown's intensely personal chamber musical The Last Five Years, which won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music and Lyrics during its 2002 off-Broadway premiere, is a simple story about a singular event: the failed marriage between Cathy and Jamie. She is a young, aspiring but unaccomplished actress, and he is a young, highly successful first novelist. The play begins with a heartbroken Cathy singing a tender-to-the-touch torch song at the sad end of the relationship, followed by a giddy Jamie singing about a terrific girl he just met at the relationship's beginning. As the play progresses, their respective timelines converge, cross, and once again careen in opposite directions, leaving Cathy at the conception of the five-year partnership and Jamie at its foreshadowed conclusion as the lights fade to black.

Compacted into a single act, accompanied by just a sixpiece all-string orchestra, and built for modest staging, The Last Five Years proves that good things come in small packages. But in a show like this – where singing far outweighs dialogue, songs alternate between witty and emotionally wrenching, and the music requires melodic introspection and balls-to-the-wall belting – the performers are at serious risk of whiplash and laryngitis. Make that half of the performers, for in this unique production, the other half run the risk of carpal tunnel.

In this double-cast collaboration between Ground Floor Theatre and Deaf Austin Theatre, there's a singing Jamie (John Christopher) and a signing Cathy (Krissy Lemon, who is deaf) onstage, and a signing Jamie (Saúl López, who is a hearing American Sign Language interpreter) and a singing Cathy (Carolyn O'Brien) perched on a platform behind them. Actors perform in unison with their character counterparts, and co-directors Lisa Scheps (GFT) and Brian Cheslik (DAT) and ASL consultant Sandra Mae Frank work so hard at seamlessly interweaving sign language with vocal storytelling and music – performed by conductor Ellie Jarrett Shattles on piano, Daniella Lancara on violin, Hector Moreno and Isabel Tweraser on cello, Stevie Trudell on guitar, and Alex Mendoza on bass, all seated center stage behind a translucent fabric curtain – that there's a visual and vocal ballet taking place that heightens the play's emotional resonance. The script also requires that Jamie and Cathy rarely interact, resulting in the actors emoting to an empty space. All four performers are comfortable enough in their own skin to stand alone and sing or sign in a solo spotlight, but the presence of a counterpart seems to add weight to that missing partner.

As the Jamies, Christopher and López complete each other. Christopher is a phenomenal singer, but never manages to tap the character's immature, self-absorbed, New York state of mind evident in every lyric, but the wonderfully expressive López does. In "The Schmuel Song," for instance – a pep talk to Cathy to encourage her to follow her dreams in the form of a fairy tale about a tailor too busy to dream – it is López who delivers the requisite playfulness and charm. As the Cathys, the phenomenally talented Lemon and the silver-throated O'Brien are greater than the sum of their individual parts. Each brings a fully fleshed character to life but, collectively, they make her so much more textured and engaging.

Scenic designer Gary Thornsberry establishes locations with a single piece of furniture, time passage is ascertained by costume changes orchestrated by Desiree Humpries, and Amber Whatley's lighting design consists of moderate illumination dramatically accentuated with spotlights. The two Jamies and two Cathys are on opposite sides of the performance space, except during "The Next Ten Minutes," which reenacts the wedding between Jamie and Cathy at the midpoint of the story and places all four performers onstage together. Here, choreographer Mervin P. O'Bryant and intimacy choreographer Andy Grapko join forces to deliver a spellbinding moment – one which gives the time between love and loss a mighty voice – before the characters return to their respective trajectories, now on opposite sides of the stage.

A 2019 staging of Next to Normal was the first double-cast collaboration between these two companies. Let's hope that many more follow this wonderful The Last Five Years production.

Deaf Austin Theatre & Ground Floor Theatre's The Last Five Years

979 Springdale, 512/840-1804
Through Dec. 18
Running time: 90 mins.

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The Last Five Years, Carolyn O'Brien, Krissy Lemon, John Christopher, Saúl López, Deaf Austin Theatre, Ground Floor Theatre, Lisa Scheps, Brian Cheslik

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