Friday, September 2, 2016

The Last Five Years at Harlequin

Published in the Weekly Volcano, Sept. 1, 2016
Aaron Lamb and Katherine Strohmaier, photo courtesy Harlequin Productions

The Last Five Years is a little musical with a big heart, and actors Aaron Lamb and Katherine Strohmaier, directed by Linda Whitney, make of it a mesmerizing evening’s entertainment.
Composer, lyricist and playwright Jason Robert Brown has created a story told in song that is heart-wrenching and real — no fairy tale romance this, but rather a look at five years in the life of a couple who meet, fall in love, and live through the tears and laughter of reality; with humor, with sadness, with conflict.
The truly clever thing about Brown’s story, which could come across as contrived and corny in the hands of a lesser playwright, is that the story is told both forward and backward. Catherine Hiatt (Strohmaier) begins the telling of their story from the present moment and works her way backwards to when she first met Jamie, who tells his version of their story from the beginning. It’s two stories of the same five years told from two points of view and told entirely through song. There is a single piano set on a revolve in the center of the stage, and the two performers take turns on it accompanying each other as they each sing solos. There are two songs sung as duets, one when their stories (told from beginning to end and end to beginning) inevitably intersect, and that moment of intersection is one of the most beautiful moments in the play — and one other duet at the end.
Katherine Strohmaier
Without Strohmaier and Lamb, The Last Five Years could not have been produced, because finding a triple-threat duo, a man and a woman who can each sing, play piano and act, is next to impossible.
Harlequin audiences know Lamb from his performances as Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird, Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and many other non-musical shows, but we never before knew he could sing and play the piano — but oh can he ever belt out a song with beautiful pitch, range and seething emotion!
Strohmaier is new to the Harlequin stage, but she comes with an impressive resume, having performed in Guys and Dolls at the 5th Avenue Theatre, in The Gypsy King at Village Theatre, and having performed as a vocalist with the Seattle Symphony Pops concerts. She is an instructor and music director at Cornish College of the Arts. Strohmaier has a clear and strong voice. She and Lamb both inhabit their characters in such a way that their songs are not just songs; through expression and movement the audience sees the characters they portray as real people who wear their emotions like battle scars.
Linda Whitney’s set design is simple yet stunning. There is nothing on the stage except for the single piano and two benches. Behind the piano are three projection screens upon which are still and moving images that correspond with the stories being told through song. Other than the changing projections, the only set change is lighting on the back wall (lighting design by Mark Thomason).
For two actors to command a stage for 80 minutes without an intermission, is quite a stunning feat. Strohmaier and Lamb do it with style and seeming ease as they become Jamie and Katherine, a successful writer and actress navigating careers and marriage in New York City.

The Last Five Years, Thursday through Saturday, 8p.m., Sunday 2 p.m. through Sept. 10, Harlequin Productions’ State Theater, 202 E. 4th Ave., Olympia, ticket prices vary, call for details, 360-786-0151;

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