This production of “the Last 5 Years” is a breakthrough for the Novato Theater Company and live theater in general. For those of us who care, we have been without any live theatre for more than 16 months during COVID. This production of Jason Robert Brown’s classic musical marks a transition from “ZOOM box” theatre to live staged theatre in a unique way. The “audience” was three video cameras and this reviewer. The “mix” was both live-streamed (as it was being performed) and recording-streamed later.
“The Last 5 Years” shows an intense relationship from beginning to end for Jamie, and from end to beginning for Cathy. Remembering a 5 year history could flow in either direction; this work forces us to see both directions at once. Jason Robert Brown etched the individual situations into our minds with his beautiful music.
Amanda Morando Nelson (playing Cathy) sings her music beautifully in this roller-coaster ride. Because the play spans the 5 years of the relationship in just 80 minutes, her costumes and styles changed for almost every scene. The recorded music tracks lacked the brightness of live violin and cello, but provided very good music for the scenes. Morando Nelson provided quite enough brightness of her own with her rich voice and perfect timing.
Robert Nelson (playing Jamie) puts his character front and center, singing his memorable lines with heart and sorrow to bring the character alive during the process. The technical demands of the video process proved just how flexible Nelson is with his singing. In the middle of the play, Nelson’s rendition of “The Schmuel Song” parts the waters of past and future to reveal the loving, playful center of the relationship. Nelson proceeds to the end of the play with an obvious bitterness that he cannot work with Cathy’s world.
Mid-play, Cathy sings “I Can Do Better Than That” while driving with Jamie to meet her parents. Morando Nelson sings about her plans for the relationship that are not what other kids usually want in their lives. The background video and overall fun mood make the scene totally believable. This is what live theatre is all about.
Jamie’s rendition of “A Miracle Would Happen” is sung in jest and fun, but the edge of the song indicates just how prescient this piece is with the onslaught of writing success with relationship. Nelson could not be more accurate. The two lives could not be reconciled if the song reflected reality.
The last song, “Goodbye Until Tomorrow” featured a duet and split screen to focus on the two lives separating. This video technique worked with both Morando Nelson and Nelson singing in synch to their individual cameras. Good way to end the show in a way that reflected on Cathy looking ahead and Jamie looking behind.
These excellent actors made the best of the limited “no audience” process they worked in. Acting to the cameras is like acting to thin air, with no audience reaction to develop the play. Singing a great rendition of Brown’s music without any applause takes some doing, but these actors are good. Seeing them again on stage is an amazing introduction back to the future (sorry Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale) that gives us heart and hope.
In many songs, one character would sing about or to the other character. The original productions had them singing alone; director Carl Jordan actually brings the two characters together, briefly, during the songs, to create a physical context to the music. The camera work pulls the characters together for just enough time to connect them emotionally during the songs. The equivalent situation would be to think of the other person as you would sing about them. Jordan translates this thought process to the stage. The technique works, once the context of each song is understood.
Projections on a screen center stage provides additional context for most scenes with related stills or videos. The projections were clear, but too small and too high off the stage to provide adequate background for some scenes. The use of three cameras provided great transition from one location to another, but the lack of many movie techniques we are used to in movies (panning, surround, closeups and fading between scenes) would provide more interest. The flat black background in many scenes gave the scenes a stark look. These are lessons learned from this first live-streamed production.
The whole purpose of this show, however, was to present the acting and songs that make live musical theatre an amazing experience. Again. In this first step forward, the NTC was successful.
Congratulations to stage manager Jere Torkelsen, who also managed the video cameras and video streaming for the show. The music soundtracks were edited and managed flawlessly by Amando Morando Nelson. Robert Nelson created the beautiful projections for the background. The show could not have happened without the journeyman quality work by Simon Eves, who networked video and sound. Morgan Boothe, Marilyn Izdebski and Hunter Ward handled the video cameras with great skill. Katie Mayfield synched all the music and projections. One could not ask for a better crew on any live theatre production.
With a great cast and crew, this production brings live theatre to everyone with an Internet connection.
“The Last 5 Years” continues online through June 20, 2021. For further information and tickets: https://www.novatotheatercompany.org/
“The Last 5 Years,” by Jason Robert Brown is produced by Electric Bill Weinberg at Novato Theater Company. Director: Carl Jordan. Music Director & Editor: Amanda Morando Nelson. Scenic Designer: Electric Bill Weinberg. Stage Manager: Jere Torkelsen. Costume Designer: Mary Weinberg. Sound Designer: Simon Eves. Video Systems Design: Simon Eves. Lighting Designer: Frank Sarubbi. Projection Design: Robert Nelson. Music & Projections operator: Katie Mayfield.
Cast: Amanda Morando Nelson: Cathy Hyatt. Robert Nelson: Jamie Wellerstein.