It’s silly to say that what makes musicals different is the music. But it's certainly the music that makes the difference in the currently running co-production by Yes, And! Entertainment and TheatreLab, “The Last Five Years.”
The accompaniment for many musicals in Richmond – and I expect most other mid-market cities – is often electronic. Musicians need to be paid and arranged and rehearsed and such, which can be expensive, so many shows are tracked. It’s easy to think that this doesn’t diminish the impact of the production, particularly if the vocalists are strong.
But then you hear the robust, glorious sound of musical director John-Stuart Fauquet’s consummate 6-person crew – 2 cellos and a violin bolstering the piano / guitar / bass trio – and you realize an essential element that is too often missing in other shows. It’s delightful to hear the soar and swell of this chamber group in service of Jason Robert Brown’s complex score. As my wife said afterwards, the music is essentially a character in this emotional two-hander and Fauquet and company bring that character to vibrant, almost symphonic, life.
The music perfectly complements performers as powerful as Christie Jackson and Alexander Sapp. Anyone who knows Richmond theater knows these two actors and how incredibly good they are. That director Chelsea Burke wrangled them both for this production was a stroke of genius; as soon as they were announced, this production became one of the most anticipated in town.
I don’t believe Style is going to do a review of this production because it already published a fine preview by Rich Griset. I’m not offering a review here and would defer to Mr. Williams at Sifter who gave a review that I (for once) am almost entirely in agreement with, down to his drawing attention to the occasionally glitchy lights. Jerry uses words like “flawless” and “charming” and “superb,” all adjectives I heartily endorse.
I will augment Jerry’s review by offering a few additional comments:
- Alexander Sapp continues to be phenomenal without being annoying. I never lose sight of his humanity; that’s part of what made his portrayals in “Toxic Avenger” and “Croaker” so good, projecting something relatable even when the characters were literally inhuman. That relatability serves him exceptionally well here, as his character responds to his changing fortunes with choices that may not exactly be admirable but are certainly understandable.
- Christie Jackson’s delivery of the “Climbing Uphill/Audition Sequence” song may be one of the best single performances of a song I’ve witnessed in a long time. As lovely and talented as she is, she made clear the crippling insecurity and uncertainty that an audition provokes, at the same time singing her heart out through the tricky melodies and the “belting as high as [she] can.”
- In his review, Jerry mentions that Jackon’s character has “less versatility and character depth,” which was the basis of a conversation I had during the car ride home after the show. The show is ingenious in many ways but that shortfall is the one nit I would have to pick. I would have appreciated it just that much more if Cathy had been on the cusp of some kind of positive transition at the show’s end or if some additional layers of experience could have been mixed into her story. It’s disappointing principally because Jackson has proved many times she can deliver whatever nuance and depth is required in a role. I loved her in this part but felt like it only exercised 75% of her range and can image how spectacular it would have been if we had gotten closer to 100%.
That said, this minor deficit in the musical’s book takes nothing away from the success of this production. This is the kind of production that makes me appreciate the surprising wealth of talent we have in Richmond. From the brilliant musicians offstage to the captivating actors onstage, it’s hard for me to imagine a better staging of this show.