Thursday, May 27, 2010

Singing Schmuel Songs to Vetoed Productions

The Last Five Years is one of my favourite things ever written for the stage. In it, composer Jason Robert Brown shares a uniquely personal story of the 5 year relationship between him and his wife that ended in broken vows, a broken marriage and broken hearts. Standing in for their real life counterparts are the tangibly real characters of Jamie and Cathy: two of musical theatre's greatest creations in one of musical theatre's most poignant stories.

Cathy tells the story of the couple's five year relationship in reverse, beginning with her heartbreak in "I'm Still Hurting" and culminating in dramatically ironic and torturous hope in "Goodbye Until Tomorrow". Jamie tells the story chronologically from their first meeting, "Shiksa Goddess", to the day he decides on divorce in "I Could Never Rescue You".
The audience sees every event in perspective-skewed detail twice: through the eyes of the suddenly successful writer desperate to enjoy his success, and those of the struggling actress who can't seem to catch a break.We see Jamie sweetly support Cathy's dreams and her resent his. We see Cathy put her heart in Jamie's hands and him smash it to pieces. We learn that Jamie "has to be in love with someone" and Cathy just wants to be loved at all. We see him support her until he can't anymore and her try to hold on to him until he won't let her anymore. We see her drive him away and him trample all over the vows they made until there's nothing left but hurt.

There has been great debate among contemporary musical theatre lovers over who is in the wrong in the story of The Last Five Years. One of the most knowledgeable thespians I know is determined that the play is meant to be Jason Robert Brown (aka Jamie)'s apology letter to his ex wife (aka Cathy), an outright admission of guilt and an explanation of his actions. Others believe that there are only so many "Schmuel Song"s one can sing and the play frames Jamie as the hero who tried all he could to rescue a damsel who was incapable of being rescued. But I think the genius of The Last Five Years is that neither is true; Jamie and Cathy are too complicated for black and white assignments of guilt. The Last Five Years shows us a relationship so real that I see people I know in every action or inaction Jamie and Cathy take. These characters are as complicated as the human beings they were inspired by. They both hurt and are hurt, love and are loved; there's nothing simple about it.

And for every complicated character motivation in The Last Five Years there's a brilliantly composed musical number every bit as complicated in itself. From hilarious and intellectual lyrics to the hardest vocals in modern musical theatre, the libretto of The Last Five Years matches every bit of the genius of its story and characters. Absolute instrumental mastery is required to pull off the challenging orchestration and a voice that can tackle the range of one of the two roles is a rare thing. Jamie and Cathy require actors who can make an audience laugh, cry and fall in love within the space of 90 minutes. They have to sell character selfishness and hopelessness, heroics and vanity while abandoning all vanity themselves to come down to the gritty human level of these supremely flawed characters. They have to let the audience hate them and demand that they love them.

A Last Five Years director is starring down the barrel of a gun the minute they decide to produce the play. They have to find actors up to the task then teach them how to do it with poignancy. A music director has to translate Brown's impossible score with precision on all fronts without losing the emotional resonance. A director has to navigate the play's troublesome structure without distracting from its low-frills core. The Last Five Years is simply an impossible undertaking.

So when Vetoed Productions, a new student-founded theatre company in Toronto, announced the undertaking I marked it down in my calendar as an event not to be missed. The emotional maturity and professional technique required for The Last Five Years made it a longshot for a student company success but if anyone could do it it would be Bishop Strachan School girls striking out on their own with the valuable support of their teacher Brandon Allen.

The production was a mixed bag of achievements that was ultimately a surprising success.

Despite some over-directed bits (air quotes, mimed jokes and emphatic hand gestures were a bit too prevalent), the direction was innovative and well thought out. First-time director Emily Kassie navigated the logistically difficult musical with great ease. The set, a large multi-layered round structure resembling a wedding cake, was functional and worked metaphorically with its clock-inspired markings contributing to the looming theme of inevitability in the play. It allowed for interesting movement and levels, played with shadows and encouraged fluid scene transitions. The lighting was simple but well executed and exactly appropriate to the piece (the one weak point being the heavy-handed use of a red gel for "Nobody Needs To Know"). The costumes and props enhanced the piece and characters without being distracting or cumbersome. Blocking generally kept the audience engaged, allowing the songs to tell their own story without over-complication. Some directed character moments were unconventional (and, arguably, detrimental) such as the quieter take on the usually boisterous ending of "I Can Do Better Than That", the early establishment of Jamie's seedy side with an overt sex joke in "Shiksa Goddess" and a sheepish rather than proud approach to "A Part of That". But overall, it was a cleverly directed piece.

The pit band, for the most part, stumbled through Jason Robert Brown's unimaginably difficult score with proficiency. However, the string section seemed lost at times, as if the talented players had underestimated the rehearsals necessary to master Brown's songs. Music director Scott Orr kept his band on track, in time and well balanced while, not perfectly, but competently, tackling the piano part himself. At times the weaknesses in the string section (particularly violin) or a fumbled piano solo detracted from the piece, but the pit has to be commended for managing the insane score at all; there were certainly times when they added brilliant layers to the action (the cello part in "Still Hurting", in particular, was beautiful).

But it was the hearts of the piece, Jamie and Cathy who ultimately determined my opinion of the production.

Julien Cyr, as Jamie, started off really weak.
The part seemed out of his vocal and acting range, his performance laboured. As he struggled through Jamie's demanding first 2 songs "Shiksa Goddess" and "Moving Too Fast", he seemed outmatched; some phrases even had to be sung out of octave or speak-sung. However, once he reached Jamie's third number, the all-important "Schmuel Song", Cyr hit his stride. From there he held on and did a decent enough job through to the end, with a couple weak points throughout. Cyr struggled to balance Jamie's sincere sweetness with his darker side, often times missing the mark on both. But when he was on he was on, charming the audience fully with an endearingly goofy and honest "Schmuel Song" and tugging at heartstrings in the mournful "If I Didn't Believe in You" (in my opinion the two linchpin songs of Jamie's character). The production's low point, "Nobody Needs to Know", was a disappointment not entirely Cyr's fault with lights, direction, pit, vocals and acting all under-performing on Jamie's important last plea for understanding. He sounded spectacular on the occasional note that sat right in his comfort zone (the "na na na na"s in "Schmuel Song" and "hold on"s in "Nobody Needs to Know" stuck out as strong) but ultimately proved no match for the role (which, let me emphasize again, is one of the toughest ever written, hardly ever played completely effectively). In general, though he managed alright, Cyr seemed less comfortable in his role than his costar.

On the other end of the spectrum, one of Toronto's best young performers, Kate Ryan, outdid all the high expectations I had for her. Greatly matured since her early days in Toronto Youth Theatre (Lucky Stiff, Robin Hood), Ryan's
brilliant voice has only gotten stronger and her acting has improved immensely. She was brilliant throughout the entire piece, belting out notes her small frame would never have suggested she could hit. Her acting and character sense shone right alongside her one-of-a-kind voice as she tackled Cathy's funny numbers ("Summer in Ohio", "I Can Do Better Than That"), tragic songs ("I'm Still Hurting", "See I'm Smiling") and every complex note in between. Heartbreaking acting in the small moments (especially the show-starting "I'm Still Hurting") easily made up for the occasional over-the-top performance (a pitfall of her earlier work). Ryan nailed the all-important "See I'm Smiling" crescendo and landed every note with precision, technique, character and strength, even when her blocking had her sitting and eating chips during one of the toughest songs in the show ("I Can Do Better Than That"). Unafraid of surrendering vain perfection to character poignancy, Ryan’s performance was an achievement character-wise as well as musically, a rarity among vocalists of her caliber.

Ultimately, the challenge of mounting
The Last Five Years at all should earn Vetoed Productions (just now completing their first season in existence) some serious theatre cred. The fact that it was as well-executed as it was only serves to warn the Toronto theatre community of what's coming: a tribe of some VERY determined students who show no signs of ever backing down from a challenge.

The Last Five Years
' final performances are Saturday May 29th at 2pm and 8pm at The Berkeley Street Upstairs Theatre.


Anonymous said...

It looks to me, Kelly, that you had indeed been favoring the female lead in this production. I found many flaws in her performance as much as the male lead, the director, and the musical director. Even the original cast of The Last Five Years had trouble with this musical. I actually found the directing and acting choices to be very creative and it brought something new to the piece. I believe you feel that this musical (characters, music, etc.) should be done only one way and it's stuck in your head. Probably the most interesting thing about this particular production was that they put their own spin on it and I found it more interesting than the acting choices made in the original production. I am amazed at the talent and hard work that they brought. I am amazed that the lead male, Julien Cyr, had only started singing last year, Kate Ryan is only in her final year of high school, Scott is only turning 18, and the director Emily Kassie took on her first directing piece.

Anonymous said...

I suggest you speak to someone involved in the production to find out the full story of why things were the way they were before passing certain judgements. I happen to know, for example that cast wise the director had to find two available actors who would do this production for free and were students. That is very difficult to do in this city. As well, the director of the show was also the lighting designer, set designer, costume designer, makeup artist, stage manager and calling cues - all for the first time. This show was a great opportunity to showcase young talent and initiative. It doesn't deserve such a harsh critique.

Anonymous said...

I saw a rehearsal of the show on video and I know that the actors added those "over-directed bits (air quotes, mimed jokes and emphatic hand gestures were a bit too prevalent)" were an onstage choice of the actors out of Emily's control. Also to note- as a friend of Emily's, I know that she has never seen a production of the show, and wanted everything to be fresh and new, therefore whatever was different than the original production was due to the fact that she has never seen the original production - maybe you should've spoken to Emily or Scott before writing this

Anonymous said...

This was too harsh a critique for such a talented group of people who embarked on this project for the first time. Most professionals would not dare to touch this musical so kudos to everyone involved in this production! And as for the "hand gestures", HAVE YOU SEEN THE ORIGINAL? They do it all the time. And the acting was very dull in the original (for the most part). It also depended on what performance you went to go see. Towards the end of the week, both actors were exhausted (and rightfully so). The opening night show was absolutely phenomenal. I sat next to some guy who cried 5 or 6 times during the show and laughed so hard I thought he would fall over.

Anonymous said...

Ok Kelly, you give it a shot.

Anonymous said...

As much as I agree with many of your points Kelly (such as the incredible talent of young Kate Ryan and the great work of Director Emily kassie)I strongly believe that many of your comments were not only shamefully erroneous, but completely out of context (it makes me wonder if you actually watched the performance). To say that any director of the Last Five Years "is starring down the barrel of a gun the minute they decide to produce the play" is both insulting to all cast members of the production, and to the brilliant composer Jason Brown. I have been to hundreds of plays in Toronto, in The US, on Broadway and off, and I can say with great confidence that the superiority of the directing, the talent exhibited by the actors AND the pit band were inspiring. I was moved to tears on many occasions, forced into convulsions of laughter, and by the end, was left emotionally torn between Jamie and Kathy's characters (achievable only by the sheer talent of both actors). The set design was creative, the directing perfectly understated. This is a great production, one that would hold up against any professional, seasoned, company. Great Job Guys!

Kevin Leask said...

Heh. What part will I play here? I was the guy that one of those anonymous commentators sat next to who cried 6 times on opening night and laughed with extreme enthusiasm. I returned on Friday to cry and laugh a similar amount. It is, then, that I feel quite comfortable commenting on this production. On opening night I felt almost the reverse of your review: that Julien was incredibly strong, emotionally and vocally, and that Kate was under. However, when I returned to see the show on Friday, I found myself leaning more toward your review. Julien had not changed emotionally, but was noticeably vocally exhausted. Kate, meanwhile, had dropped in over the first two performances and was emotionally spot-on. I think, when we watch this show, we must temper our shortcomings with our victories. Is it true that there were several directions that seemed unsolved by the performers leading to what appeared to be unmotivated actions? Sure. Is it true that they haven't quite achieved vocal consistency in their performances at this point in their career? Certainly. However, no matter how many times we point fingers and demand a perfect performance (as we feel we are all entitled for our $20, or in my case, $40), we must remember the director's words at the beginning of the show: This is a student production. Julien Cyr BEGAN singing a year before the production. He has managed to conquer a range and tone that most struggle with after decades of training, and has achieved an emotional consistency unseen in many productions. Kate, simultaneously, is in her graduating year in highschool: she does not have the life experiences you would think one would need to play this role. Couldn't possibly. But manages, somehow, night after night. I don't say this to rush to their defense, but rather to put things in perspective. For all who saw the show, remember what you've seen is a fine art. Remember it as a vision that was put together by students. Remember it as an educational experience created by individuals who will, one day, change our lives. And support them in that endeavor.

Anonymous said...

I don't think that this critique is in any way harsh. Kelly states that it was a "surprising success." I completely agree that this is an incredibly challenging musical. I know that both actors struggled with their roles and worked hard to encompass Kassie's vision. I believe that Kelly has hit the nail on the head with her review and has acknowledged both the successes and failures of the performance. Let's not forget that this is a review, and this was Kelly's interpretation of the performance.

Anonymous said...

For those of you who thought this review was in anyway uncalled for or required screening by the artistic team I believe you are in the wrong.

Myself being one of the students who was heavily involved in the mounting of this production, I found this review realistic yet simultaneously inspiring and complimentary.

Yes, the author had a bone to pick with almost everyone, but she also had positive feedback for everyone and she made sure to include things that could be taken away and reflected upon for the next artistic approach.

Thank you very much for this review.

Kelly said...

Wow, I'm not really sure what happened here. I think there was some fundamental misunderstanding of 1) what I was saying and 2) what the task of a reviewer is.

I really love The Last Five Years. I think it is a brilliant piece of theatre and the barrel of a gun comment was me saying that it is incredibly risky, that's all. In a million years to suggest that I would ever disrespect JRB's work is a misreading of... did you even read this review?

Actually, did you? Because I liked this production. I said it was ambitious but ultimately successful. I said it was flawed but meaningful. Emily (whom I have actually met, by the way,and appreciate that she is a very driven and accomplished girl) navigated it well, the actors held their own (I happened to prefer Kate, since as Kevin commented, she was stronger on Friday night, when I saw it, but I said Julien did a decent job) and I made a point of saying that the show is impossibly hard and it's remarkable that the young company did so well with it.

It is a learning experience for students to put on theatre. It is also my duty as a reviewer to tell the truth about what I saw in the production. I did, as fairly and considerately as I could.

Also, to say that these kids don't deserve to be harshly criticized (by the way, have you never read an actually harsh review? I liked this piece a lot, this was NOT harsh)is to undermine their accomplishment. Vetoed Productions strives to be professional and they put on professional caliber productions, therefore they deserve to be treated as such. Off with the kid gloves, a performance of this caliber deserves not to be patronized. I think reviewing this piece as I would any professional production pays all those involved much more respect than a belittling review of "they tried really hard so it was perfect" ever would.

And one final thing, if you'd like to express your opinion (something you are absolutely entitled to do, I did after all) please put your name on it. A signature of "Anonymous" does nothing but make your point sound petty when it indeed began as an honest reaction that deserves to be expressed.

So I guess misinterpret me all you want. Make me out to be a close-minded theatre-hater who knows nothing about the production or the people involved or the outrageous commitment and passion it takes to put on a play. I stand by my review. And hey, at least I got you talking.

Kate Ryan said...

Great comment, Kelly.

Kate Ryan said...

Keep writing reviews! :)

Emily Kassie said...

Emily Kassie here. I just want to say that I am so grateful that this piece has got people talking, if anything that was the point. I can whole-heartedly say that my production was flawed, as is any production of theatre. I am glad that Kelly took the production so seriously as to write such an eloquent and thoughtful review. In the theatre world, everyone sees a project differently, and this particular review was fairly complimentary. Another reviewer might write the opposite about Kate and Julien, and then different people would be frustrated. The point is we all care, and that is fantastic. Thank you all for coming to see and support this project, and continue to discuss. On behalf of the cast and crew, we do not take any offense to this critique, and welcome it in our post-show reflections. It has a been such a wonderful and exciting experience for all of us, and I can't express enough how much it means to me that people have connected to this piece and want to say something about it.

Thanks again,