I will admit that I had serious reservations prior to Wednesday night's performance of the Harrison Hilltop Theatre's The Last Five Years. As much as I enjoy Cari Downing's comedic stage work - I described how sensational she was in the Hilltop's I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change earlier this year, and it's worth repeating - I wasn't so sure she was up to composer Jason Robert Brown's romantic musical. And the same went for Tristan Layne Tapscott, who I think is fantastically funny in comedy roles, but hit-or-miss in his more serious efforts. Under the direction of David Turley, though, they present a unique take on this criss-crossed storyline that has its own sweetness.
The piece is loved by many a die-hard musical-theatre fan, and Brown is considered by some to be a god of a composer, second only to Stephen Sondheim. This work of Brown's is particularly clever, in that its story of a man and woman meeting and falling in (and then out of) love while furthering their careers is told from each person's perspective, but in opposite directions in time. From Jamie's standpoint, we hear their love story from beginning to end. Cathy, however, starts at the end and reverses back to the beginning, with the characters' two timelines meeting in the middle.
As Cathy, Downing had me in tears during the first song in the show, which is no small feat; I know this musical backward and forward, so there are no surprises in the lyrics for me. Still, Downing's connection to the feeling behind "Still Hurting" is truly moving. She starts with an almost emotionless stance and expression, with little inflection in her voice. It's quickly clear, though, that her Cathy is numbing herself to the pain of losing Jamie. Bits of anger then start to crack their way through that numbness, as Downing runs the gamut from deep sadness to accusatory anger, and everything in between. It's a stunning scene ... and that's just the show's first number.
Downing continues to impress with equally effective displays of feeling through the end of the show, and thankfully also gets to showcase her skills in comedic delivery with her delightfully exaggerated facial expressions and humorous inflections. Downing's artistry and vocal quality seem to fit hand-in-glove with Brown's music, with his beautiful melodies mixed with strongly sentimental and laugh-worthy lyrics.
Tapscott, meanwhile, had me holding back tears almost from the start of my personal favorite song in the musical, "The Next 10 Minutes." Completely in tune with the deep love expressed in the piece, Tapscott's take is subtly passionate and believable - as is his performance all throughout the Hilltop's offering. I can't remember when I last heard the actor in such good voice, as he delivers rich tones backed by a thoughtful connection to each lyric's meaning.
It's during "The Next 10 Minutes" that the actors, for the first and only time, directly interact - a moment I'm especially eager to see take place, in terms of its stage treatment, each time I see the show. And while I won't give away exactly how Turley presents the midpoint criss-crossing of the characters' timelines, I will say that it's beautifully executed in a clear, touching manner that's kind of surprising and yet, in hindsight, not altogether unexpected.
This musical is a perfect fit for the Hilltop's new District Theatre space, which, while grander than the company's Davenport venue, still feels intimate from an audience's perspective. Brown's work begs for that intimacy, calling for a closeness to the characters as they wear their hearts on their sleeves. The piece also allows musical director Danny White to shine as he accompanies the actors on piano. With almost nothing but solos throughout the show, White's skills at the keyboard are clearly heard, and the musicality that pours forth from his fingers - with generous employment of small glissandos - is remarkable and impassioned.
With the exception of its poor lighting (and, on Wednesday, an almost-always-late spotlight), Turley's The Last Five Years, as a whole, is quite lovely, and marked with exceptional moments. By not over-directing his actors, and seemingly allowing them to interpret each song as they see fit, both Turley's minimalist approach and the show itself work, making Harrison Hilltop's production a charming, beautifully sung performance.
For tickets and information, call (309)235-1654 or visit HarrisonHilltop.com.