‘The Last 5 Years’ at Spotlighters Theatre by Amanda Gunther

A pedestrian love story like you’ve never heard it before. Two sides to every tale when there’s a boy and a girl involved. But what if the boy told his story from the beginning to the end and the girl told her story from the end to the beginning. Their paths may only cross once when they meet in the middle over museums and marriages, but their tale is the same; a relationship so bright and full of hope unraveled at the seams by irreconcilable differences. A stunningly complex musical offered up to the stage for Spotlighters Theatre’s spring musical, Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years will move you to tears with its emotional score, vivid performers and heartfelt chemistry between the two performers. Directed by Fuzz Roark with Musical Direction by Kevin Roland, this is a breathtaking two-person musical that really explains everything there is to know about love.

Cathy (Lauren Schein) in "I Can Do Better Than That" Cathy babbles on and on when taking Jaime home to meet her family. Photo by Ken Stanek Photography.
Cathy (Lauren Schein) singing “I Can Do Better Than That.” Photo by Ken Stanek Photography.

Director Fuzz Roark made the unique choice of giving the audience the opportunity to see four different casts of couples at any one point during the run of the show. The demanding score and complex emotions of the book take quite a toll on the performers as well as the audience; this rotating cast allows everyone to give their best potential during each performance. The performance schedule of who is playing when can be found on the website.

Assistant Musical Director Bobby McCoy brings the music and lyrics of Jason Robert Brown to vigorous life with a live pit orchestra consisting of two cellists, a violinist, a bass, acoustic guitar and a keyboard player. Having a live orchestra for this musical truly enhances the audience’s reception of the sheer emotional depth and beauty hidden within the score.

Cellist Jaques-Pierre Malan lent his resplendent sound to “Still Hurting” serving to accentuate the grief and sorrow that Cathy sings about during this number. Other numbers like “The Schmuel Song” and “Climbing Uphill/Audition Sequence” are highlighted and punctuated with notes of live music adding to their humor. Overall McCoy achieves a great success with the live orchestrations coming from the pit, even if at times they overpower the singers in volume. Keep an ear out for the wicked keyboard slides soloed by McCoy in “Moving Too Fast.” The excellent orchestra included Jaques-Pierre Malan on cello, Kristen Bakkegard on violin, Russell Snyder on Fretless Bass, and Ryan Lucas on Acoustic Guitar.

Director Fuzz Roark has picked the perfect musical for the intimate staging at Spotlighters. You need to be involved directly in Jamie and Cathy’s life for this musical to truly translate and by being so close to them as they perform you gain absolutely everything, from a sense of clarity in their facial expressions to each emotion as it is suffused into their singing. Roark’s rotating repertory of performers allows the audience to enjoy several different shows, I would go again if I could just to see the other three casts, knowing each one will bring a valiant effort to this emotionally intricate production.

Taking on the role of Cathy (for my performance) is Lauren Schein. She maintains a consistent level of emotional energy throughout the production, having to start in true sorrow and anguish and work her way backward into nubile joy and puppy-love innocence. Her voice has a pure and heavy melancholy to it for “Still Hurting” and it is the first place we hear her powerful belt, a voice that sends the torture of her heart racing around the audience no matter which direction she’s facing.

Schein’s backward progression is astonishing; each layer of darkened emotion melting away song by song until the end of the show in “Goodbye Until Tomorrow” she has revealed herself to be this character unborn; a woman who is sprightly and eager, anxious for her new love life to begin; a sharp contrast by comparison to the way her story begins. Schein has a great modern popish quality to her voice which lends itself naturally to this score, allowing her to hit some of the more complex rhythms featured in numbers like “A Summer In Ohio” and “Climbing Uphill/Audition Sequence.”

Schein plays sassy and demure as well as overwhelmed and underappreciated; a plethora of things that all women experience at one point in time during a relationship. Her voice is the most important tool she has and she utilizes it as the perfect vessel for transporting her myriad of emotions out toward the audience, never missing a beat, particularly in “I’m A Part Of That,” her most versatile song.

Bart Debicki takes to the role of the eager writer Jamie, and does the songs and attitude of this character a phenomenal justice. From the very beginning the character of Jamie is spunky, energetic, and exuberant, and Debicki does not fall short in his performance. Both of his opening numbers “Shiksa Goddess” and “Moving Too Fast” are a powerplay of his ever building momentum with stunning vocal power. But the real song where Debicki lets loose is “The Schmuel Song.” It’s a fun number that tempers silliness with seriousness, challenging tempo against rhythm, and his little dances as well as the accents he gives the characters in the song are a real hoot; a positively perfect storyteller with a punch of pizzazz.

Jaime & Cathy Wellerstein (Bart Debicki and Lauren Schein) singing 'The Next Ten Minutes."  Photo by Kenn Stanek.
Jaime & Cathy Wellerstein (Bart Debicki and Lauren Schein) singing ‘The Next Ten Minutes.” Photo by Kenn Stanek.

Debicki’s transformation from over-the-moon in love to tormented with regret is a tragic one, but done with a deep passion heard in his songs. “If I Didn’t Believe In You” and “Nobody Needs To Know” are the two most harrowing songs of the musical and Debicki pours his heart and soul into the former, bringing a heavy silence of remorse to the latter. It’s nothing short of moving and the way his character ends will sit heavy in your heart the rest of the day.

While they only truly share one song together – face to face in the same time and space – “The Next Ten Minutes” – by the time Debicki and Schein reach this song it feels as if they’ve been singing together side by side in the same story the whole time. This song is bittersweet, hitting notes of happy and their struggle all at the same time, and brings the story full-circle. The pairing for this performance is absolutely perfect, with Schein’s vocal power and Debicki’s deep emotions balancing one another out to create the epitome of how this story was meant to be told.


Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes. with no intermission.The Last Five Years plays through March 24, 2013 at Spotlighters Theatre – 817 North St. Paul Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 752-1225, or purchase them online.



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