Saturday, November 2, 2013

"The Last Five Years" by Flip Theatre Company at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage

The Last Five Years is a two-person musical by acclaimed composer Jason Robert Brown* that had it's off-Broadway debut in 2002. It's come to the forefront again this year with an off-Broadway revival and an impending movie. It also happens to be one of the favorite musicals of my blogger friend Bartley, aka The Playbill Collector, so I was eager to see the local production of the show by one of the newest theater companies in town, Flip Theatre Company, founded by actor Ben Bakken and director John Lynn (who directs this piece). I went into it knowing next to nothing about the show and never having heard the music, which is often a great way to experience a musical. I really enjoyed it - it's a beautiful score, with a sad love story (my favorite kind), two great performers, and a very well done production.

The Last Five Years tells the story of a relationship in a unique way. Cathy beings at the ending of this intense five-year relationship, when the two have decided to go their separate ways, and song by song works back to the beginning. Jamie starts at the beginning, when their love is fresh and new, and works his way through the hard times to the end. They meet in the middle at their engagement/wedding, and for one brief moment we see couple on the same page, together and happy. Otherwise it's a one-sided story, with the other person either off-stage or sitting quietly in the shadows, simply a prop but not reacting. It's an interesting and innovative way to tell a story. But because the two never really interact, I had a hard time really feeling their connection or understanding why and how it was broken.

Britta Ollmann (Cathy) and Bobby Gardner (Jamie)
(photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
I'm thrilled to see the return of Britta Ollmann to the Twin Cities stage. She was in one of my favorite shows of 2010Violet, and when she sang I was taken right back there to that show.  Britta is so appealing with a strong, gorgeous, clear voice. She sings with emotion that cuts right to the heart, whether sad or happy or trying to convince herself that she's happy, so I easily sided with Cathy in the break-up. Bobby Gardner also sounds great as Jamie but I found his character less sympathetic (a newly married man complaining about all the beautiful women hitting on him is not going to garner sympathy from female audience members), but he almost won me over with the heartbreaking "Nobody Needs to Know." I've never heard any of these songs before but they're great - emotional or funny, hopeful or despairing. I think I need to listen to the score a few more times to truly appreciate them.

The music sounds great with the fabulous five-piece band directed with energy and precision by Jason Hansen, as always. But I wish the actors weren't miked. Maybe there are technical reasons involving the band that require them to be miked, but in the small space of the Garage with an intimate show like this, the story might be better served with no amplification. It's so rare that a musical is unmiked, but I find there's a much greater emotional impact when there's no amplification to come between the story and the audience (see Ordinary Days by Nautilus Music-Theater, which admittedly is a smaller space with just a piano accompaniment).

They've made great use of the space at the Theatre Garage, which has become one of my favorite places to see theater. The on-stage band is separated from the action by a bunch of empty frames hanging in mid-air. Two city stoops with doors are converted into a pier or a mantel, and various other set pieces are brought in for certain scenes. There are a lot of moving pieces but it's done relatively smoothly, keeping the momentum going through the scenes. The fast and frequent wardrobe changes (costumes by Suzanna Schneider) help to convey the progression of time.

This is a promising debut by Flip Theatre, and I look forward to their next venture. I hope they continue to do small, intimate, lesser-known musicals with a high-quality production, like The Last Five Years. This is a short run - just two weekends - so get there fast if you're interested (discount tickets available on Goldstar).

*This summer, the Guthrie commissioned musical theater composer Jason Robert Brown to write a song for their 50th anniversary. "Hamlet 3.2" was performed at the Gala Performance by Brian D'Arcy James and an ensemble of local talent, and it was fantastic.