by Michele Payne
Iowa City – On Friday night I spent 90 minutes at the Englert watching a relationship fall apart and enjoyed myself very much. Knowing the relationship was doomed (the playbill made that clear and really — even if it hadn’t — who couldn’t see it coming?), I still enjoyed hearing Cathy (Megan O’Brien) and Jamie (Jack Cotterell) narrate its destruction through song.
The Last Five Years was named by Time magazine one of the best ten shows of 2001 and there’s a film version that an Atlantic reviewer dubbed “ a cult musical.” Friday’s performance at the Englert was stripped of all characters except Jamie and Cathy and accompanied by a terrific eight-piece orchestra led by Carl Rowes. This performance was accurately billed as The Last Five Years: In Concert.
Both sides get to tell their story in song. Jamie tells his from beginning to end starting with “Shiksa Goddess” and ending with “I Could Never Rescue You.” Cathy starts from the end of the relationship singing “Still Hurting” and working her way forward to “Goodbye Until Tomorrow.” In between there are competing careers: genuine success for author Jamie and success that feels like failure for musical actress Cathy. There’s insecurity, disloyalty, infidelity: it’s not a terribly original breakup. Only once at the midpoint of the play do the characters meet, when Jamie proposes and Cathy accepts as they sing the duet “The Next Ten Minutes.”
Both O’Brien and Cotterell have wonderful voices, perfectly suited to the characters, and even though there was little chemistry between them, the concert format didn’t seem to require it. It’s a five-year relationship, start to finish, and Cotterell visibly aged as Jamie, not perhaps by looking older but by taking on more burdens, becoming more jaded, clearly losing faith. O’Brien was not as successful working her way back from the breakup to being a younger Cathy, more innocent and in that first blush that accompanies new love. Her last song sung as a young woman newly in love was in tone and style very much like her first, sung when she has just received a letter from Jamie telling her it’s over.
The minimal set made good use of the Englert’s bare back wall to evoke an urban setting and the lighting was for the most part sensitive to what was happening with the characters. The only exception fell at midpoint when Cathy and Jamie decide to marry. It’s the only tender moment between them, and I would have liked the lights to dim on the on-stage orchestra and highlight the couple.
I did say the orchestra was terrific, right? Moody, subtle, big on strings and just right for the characters. Rowles was on piano, with cellists Christine Gentzsch and Diane Platte, violinist Andrew Gentzsch, guitarist Luke Sanders, and Geb Thomas on bass. While the music was excellent, I could wish the people on the sound board had more trust in the Englert’s acoustics. The musicians and the singers seemed miked to the same volume, making it sometimes hard to understand the lyrics over the instruments.
Old Capitol Opera’s mission is to “bring together local professionals, and offer outstanding musical performances and productions in Iowa City and throughout eastern Iowa,” and with The Last Five Years they accomplished that mission quite nicely. Last night’s performance was also a fundraiser for Shelter House in Iowa City, and the company intends to continue partnering with other local non-profits, a worthy and friendly way to be part of the community while encouraging attendance among those inclined to say, “Opera? Um. No.”
I’m very much looking forward to Old Capitol Opera’s upcoming performances of Opera for Dummies in June and Verdi’s La Traviata in the fall.