Welcome back? As various re-openings occur throughout the city despite the ongoing presence of COVID-19, Dayton’s 2020-2021 theater season officially launches with Dare to Defy Productions’ vocally superb presentation of The Last Five Years. Jason Robert Brown’s heartwarming yet heartbreaking 2002 musical continues through July 11 at The Brightside Music and Event Venue.
Set in New York City and simultaneously told chronologically and in reverse, this breezy, intimate, compelling, and smart one-act two-hander details the humorous yet troublesome relationship between struggling actress Cathy Hiatt (full-throttle Abby Hoggatt) and aspiring novelist Jamie Wellerstein (endearing Brent Hoggatt). The engaging, relatable story of optimism and woe begins with Cathy’s sorrowful reflections at the end of their marriage while Jamie’s perspectives joyously start not long after they have met. The couple only meets in the middle at their wedding, exquisitely represented by the gorgeous ballad The Next Ten Minutes. Over the course of 16 skillfully detailed and descriptive songs, an entire relationship arises with an emotional resonance that cuts to the core, proving the cold hard fact that some soulmates come with an invisible expiration date.
My journey with this material dates back to the spring of 2001 when I saw the original production at Northlight Theatre in Skokie, Illinois outside Chicago. The show was so fresh that during a post-show talkback Brown realized he made a significant error in Cathy and Jamie’s timeline, proving the challenge that comes from attempting unorthodox storytelling. And for all of the brilliance overflowing throughout Lauren Kennedy and Norbert Leo Butz’s performances, they were not an actual complex married couple. They were simply great actors interpreting a complex married couple. I mention the original production to specifically highlight how rare it is to see The Last Five Years elevated by the presence of real-life spouses, a substantial reason why the performances of Dare to Defy resident ensemble members Abby and Brent are not only outstanding but undeniably special.
Under the gentle, fluid, flashback-inspired direction of Mackensie King, who previously helmed this show for Dare to Defy in 2015, Abby and Brent, layering their work with authentic love, wonderfully embody Cathy and Jamie’s enjoyable idiosyncrasies and destructive despair. Whether conveying the difficulties Cathy endures while longing for a professional breakthrough or the conflicted betrayal weighing heavily on Jamie’s mind having slept with another woman, this dynamic duo leaves nothing undone. And musically, they soar. At the outset, Abby marvelously sets the tone with Still Hurting and winningly lightens the mood with A Part of That, A Summer in Ohio, When You Come Home to Me, and Goodbye Until Tomorrow. Brent’s delightful charm fuels Shiksa Goddess, Moving Too Fast, playful Schmuel Song, and colorfully conversational A Miracle Would Happen, but he’s equally adept stretching his acting muscles delivering the angrier, wounded If I Didn’t Believe In You and Nobody Needs To Know. Still, there is one number in this production deserving of utmost attention. Sometimes musical theatre only requires a terrific actress to sit in a chair and belt her heart out. As so, Abby’s phenomenal rendition of I Can Do Better Than That, reverberating through The Brightside’s rafters and probably out onto East Third Street, is a stunningly impactful moment worthy of an encore.
Elsewhere, King, who also serves as sound designer, assembles a fine artistic team including music director Norman A. Moxley II and lighting designer Derryck J. Menard. Moxley’s lovely five-piece orchestra consists of pianist Dean Brown, bassist Phillip Detty, violinist Josh van Tilburgh, cellist Tom Watts, and guitarist David Wells. Brown (driving the Billy Joel-esque groove of Moving Too Fast) and van Tilburgh (beautifully stirring the emotional undercurrents of The Schmuel Song and I Can Do Better Than That) excellently repeat their duties from the 2015 production.
Medically, I can’t say if it is in your best interest to see The Last Five Years. Dare to Defy has gone to great lengths in their social distancing precautions, but the choice to attend is yours. However, professionally and theatrically, I can assure you the production is worthwhile. After all, Abby sings the hell out of the score.
The Last Five Years continues at 8 p.m. Friday and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday at The Brightside Music and Event Venue, 905 E. Third St., Dayton. The production is performed in 85 minutes without intermission. Tickets are $18-$25. A portion of ticket sales will be donated to the Black Lives Matter Movement. For tickets, visit https://broadwaytrivia2d.simpletix.com/e/55037. Seating is limited.
In addition, Dare to Defy has created the following safety plan for actors and audience:
- Six (or more feet) between each ticket group
- Capping ticket sales 18.5 percent of venue’s audience capacity
- All audience members required to wear masks
- No intermissions/longer intermissions
- Extra sanitizing before and after shows. (The Brightside has purchased a sanitizing spray machine that quickly sanitizes the air and surfaces for added safety).
- Checking temperatures at the door
- All tickets must be purchased online to ensure a completely no-touch ticketing process
- Spacing the audience more than 35 feet away from the actors
- The blocking of the show is close and intimate in a safe manner
- All crew will be masked and socially distanced