Theater Preview: THE LAST FIVE YEARS (After Hours Theatre Company in West Hollywood)

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by Tony Frankel on June 3, 2019

in Interviews,Theater-Los Angeles


Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years is contextually brilliant: it is a two-character musical that starts at the end of a five-year relationship for the woman, Cathy, but at the beginning for the man, Jaime. Her songs go backward in time and his forward. They meet in the middle of the show, which also happens to be their wedding day. This structure allows us to see a relationship from two different perspectives. He is a novelist who rises to notoriety with such rapidity that he is incapable of meeting his wife’s needs. While he schmoozes in literary circles in New York, her dreams of acting lead her to summer stock in Ohio. They’re perfect for each other. They’re truly in love. But this is real life, which can get in the way of the real thing. We know right off the bat where it is headed and where it all began. That Mr. Brown manages to capture our hearts is nothing short of a miracle: his songs are engaging, wistful, funny, melancholic and always insightful. This is one of Brown’s first shows before he became a household name with Parade, The Bridges of Madison County, Honeymoon in Vegas and more.

The absolute best way to see this song cycle is in an intimate space. But After Hours Theatre Company is going one step further when their brand new production opens June 7, 2019. The enterprising troupe that brought us last year’s smash hit One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: The Immersive Experience presents a multi-sensory version of The Last Five Years to subtly enhance what is already a beautiful show. You will get super high production value and super high quality from this crew (Andrew Schmedake, the brilliant lighting designer for Cuckoo’s Nest, will illuminate here as well).

I loved drinking out of hypodermic needles and dancing with loons at Cuckoo’s Nest, but I suspected that we weren’t about to audition with Cathy (played by Janel Parrish) or have an affair with Jaime (which I assume will be on the minds of most patrons when they espy Scott Porter in the role).

I contacted producer Graham Wetterhahn to get the skinny on his vision for the show, which will be directed by the great Kari Hayter, who staged a luminous Parade at Chance Theater. Turns out the articulate and authentic Mr. Wetterhahn is so intelligent and eloquent, that this interview practically wrote itself.

Stage and Cinema:

Will the pre-show be escape room-type antics such as the ones that preceded Cuckoo’s Nest?

Graham Wetterhahn:

The pre-show is there to sort of be an amuse-bouche to the show. So we want to use it to introduce audiences to major themes, teach them how we will be building the world, and put them in the right emotional state to watch the show. The current draft of the pre-show definitely has a “game” element, but it won’t be like Cuckoo’s Nest because it doesn’t fit the tone of the show and we don’t have the same number of actors or amount of real estate to play with. Our preshow designer, Sara Beil, did also design the Cuckoo’s Nest experience though so there will be some touches that feel familiar I’m sure.

S&C: You refer to the macro production thesis of this show. Can you elucidate?

GW: I’ve always had a sort of five-year plan for the company. Every project I’ve chosen has been intended to help us build the company toward our Avengers project, which is a large-scale, immersive musical. The Last Five Years is almost certainly our penultimate project to that musical.

Cuckoo’s Nest was perfect for teaching us how to do a large-scale, actor-driven, immersive piece. But it was really only ever intended as a proof of concept. For this piece, we’re intentionally stripping away everything that made Cuckoo’s Nest work (lots of actors, a very clear time and place, etc.) and attempting to develop a totally different side of the company and discover new non-traditional techniques.

So if Cuckoo’s Nest was a muscle car (big, chaotic, sometimes unwieldy), The Last Five Years is supposed to be more like a European sports car (refined, elegant, premium).

Instead of literally bringing you into the world of the show as a character, we’re hoping to more viscerally and emotionally immerse you in the central relationship. That will be primarily accomplished through added technical elements, and of course the beautiful direction of Ms. Hayter.

S&C: Given the intimate space, how many people can you fit into any given performance?

GW: The space is snug, only around 1000 square feet total (Cuckoo’s Nest was 5500-6000 square feet for reference). So we’re hoping for around 60-65. Our budget is actually very similar to Cuckoo’s Nest though, so don’t mistake “smaller” for less ambitious. This is an intimate show, and as such you will very likely be within inches of the performers at multiple moments throughout the piece. One of the awesome things about working with actors who have significant backgrounds in both film and theater is that they understand how to perform for an audience while also making very subtle and deliberate acting choices that wouldn’t be visible in a more traditional proscenium setting. It’s been an absolute privilege to watch Scott and Janel rehearse everyday. And boy can they sing!

S&C: So, are the patrons active spectators as in Cuckoo’s Nest?

GW: No, this is a more voyeuristic experience.  And that’s why we’re using the word “multisensory” and not “immersive”. To me “immersive” is a design element that indicates you as an audience member have a role in the world of the show. “Multisensory” was used to indicate that we will be incorporating non-traditional design elements, but that you will not literally be character in the world of the show.  Immersive just doesn’t suit the piece.

S&C: Will there be a band or simply piano?

GW: We will have the full original six-piece orchestration: Piano, guitar, bass, violin, and two cellos (under the very capable hands of our Music Director Jennifer Lin). The musicians also have their own blocking tracks and featured solo moments, and have all been working with us daily since about midway through the rehearsal process. One of the most exciting things about this production is that you can choose to literally sit next to one of the musicians who are spread out around the space. The show is all about the music so we wanted to feature the musicians in a prominent way. Fortunately our Sound Designer Cricket Myers has been more than up to the challenge.

S&C: Can you give away some of the sensations besides scent — or do you want audiences to be surprised?

GW: Scent was definitely my jumping off point for selecting this project. But I was really inspired by tasting menus at fine dining establishments. The energy the chefs use to design their menus are almost identical to what we use when we produce an intimate play. The difference is that their creative canvas uses flavor and scent and temperature and texture to tell a story and create a satisfying experience, whereas we typically use light and sound and costume and scenery. I wanted to blend those worlds a little bit.

Hopefully that gives you enough without giving too much away. But I will say everything is much more subtle and intentional than in our previous production. Our director loves to deconstruct pieces, and tends to prefer a more minimalist aesthetic so these non-traditional elements are being used sparingly but intentionally — hopefully to maximum effect.

I can tell you we will be offering a select number of premium tickets that come with a 4-5 drink cocktail tasting that will be served at specific moments throughout the show. So for example, if Cathy’s thematic scent is orange blossom, we might have a cocktail with an orange blossom-infused spirit and effervescence to indicate that feeling of butterflies in your stomach when falling in love.

One thing about the scent design though: When most people think of scent design they usually think of literal scent design. So if there’s a Christmas tree it smells like a Christmas tree, if there are cookies it smells like cookies. We do a little bit of that but that’s not what I was interested in or what we’re going for. In the same way that you use lighting design or musical underscoring to heighten the emotion of a scene, I wanted to see if we could accomplish the same thing with scent. So if warm colored lighting and songs in a major key with quicker tempos typically help convey happier, more energetic emotions, so too can brighter scents like citrus fruits or spring flowers. The Last Five Years is a show that’s entirely about significant moments in an intimate relationship. Scent is the strongest sense tied to memory. So it seemed like a perfect fit.

photos by KJ Knies

The Last Five Years
After Hours Theatre Company
The Actors Company – The Other Space
916 A North Formosa Ave, West Hollywood
Thurs-Sat at 8; Sun at 7
ends on July 14, 2019
for tickets, visit After Hours
for more info visit Facebook

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