Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years takes a simple premise – a love story – and disarticulates it, putting the protagonists at opposing ends of their own tale. The acclaimed musical has been performed since 2001; it’s a heartbreaking tribute to the breakdown of a modern relationship, detailed through a unique reverse-narrative style. Though the play has been staged by many companies since it’s debut, After Hours Theatre Company’s 2019 production of the work provides a particularly noteworthy spin.
After Hours, the group behind 2018’s magnificent One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, turns their uncanny eye for the blend of staged theatre with immersive and sensory flair to The Last Five Years and the result is nothing short of magical. Artistic Director Graham Wetterhahn, Director Kari Hayter, and Interactive Designer Sara Beil have combined their efforts to create The Last Five Years: A Multisensory Experience, expanding on the world of Brown’s play to bring the characters of Jamie and Cathy more fully to life than any standard staging possibly could.
Where Cuckoo’s Nest had a highly interactive experience tacked on beforehand to engage it’s audiences, Last Five Years doesn’t go quite so in-depth on an immersive level, instead taking a more subtle approach that gently fleshes out Jamie and Cathy using sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. All of these are deliciously accented by craft cocktail service from Spirit Guides, returning after a clever outing at Cuckoo’s Nest. While the experience is not “immersive” per say, nor is it marketed as such, the short preamble section before the play proper begins is a brilliant way for the audience to get into the head space of the characters before they even appear on stage.
Each of the five senses is engaged within a series of small stations surrounding the circular main stage of the set (a gorgeously built and orchestrated construction by Scenic Designer Efren Delgadillo Jr.), and they each contain mementos and clever, interactive elements that demonstrate the distinctive charm that After Hours Theatre Company brings to its productions. Of particular note are two customized scents – one representing Jamie and one for Cathy – curated by Cantrip Candles and Tales By Candlelight virtuoso Cristoff Visscher. Not only are these scents a pleasure to smell in the on-boarding portion of the evening, they are subtly pumped throughout the room as each character takes the stage once the show begins. It’s a wonderful take on scent memory that speaks to the clever minds behind the production and brings a familiar comfort to every scene.
The show itself is a triumph, from Delgadillo Jr.’s beautiful stage, to the Cuckoo’s Nest alum Andrew Shemedake’s magnificent lighting design, to Cricket S. Meyers full, resonant sound design, and the expert execution of the live music from Music Director Jennifer Lin. The production as a whole feels so complete, every possibility considered and designed for – the end result is a truly sensational presentation of a well-loved piece of theatre.
Actors Scott Porter and Janel Parrish, both perhaps best known for their performances on the small screen, are impeccable in their portrayals of the forlorn lovers. Throughout the musical, Jamie and Cathy are ships passing in the night, save for a fleeting, beautiful moment at the center; the only time their voices rise together before they again begin to drift apart, now in opposite directions. It’s remarkable to see each performer slowly shift from joy to sorrow, passing past each other toward an ending that’s already been determined. This is a story about both the end of a relationship and the beginning, and by the closing notes, both feel fraught with an equal sense of melancholy.
Overall, The Last Five Years at After Hours is unquestionably superb. Porter and Parrish have strong, rich voices that deftly suit the modern blend of Brown’s score, and Lin’s musical and vocal direction provides a seamless blend between performer and orchestra. Even though the production doesn’t truly qualify as “immersive theatre,” broad as that definition is rapidly becoming, it’s very easy for the audience to find themselves immersed in Jamie and Cathy’s story thanks to the efforts the After Hours team has made to create a Last Five Years that is a singularly memorable and fully alive.
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