reviewed by Ken Klingenmeier

Since March 9th, ASOTA has been in a sort of Covid-19 limbo along with much of the rest of the world. Last evening marked the end of that hiatus and hopefully what might be the beginning of renewed activity.

It was not without some doubts that Mrs K and I headed to downtown Carmel to attend opening night for Carmel Community Players’ The Last Five Years, a modern musical which premiered in Chicago in 2001 before heading to a very successful and Drama Desk award winning off-Broadway stint in 2002.

The Last Five Years, written by Jason Robert Brown (a Tony Award winner for his work on Parade and The Bridges of Madison County) is the often poignant telling of one couple’s fated romance. Jaime and Cathy meet, merge, marry, and move apart in the course of the 90 minute show’s 15 songs. A unique and clever method of storytelling is employed. Cathy’s story is launched from the ending as she discovers her husband has left her (“Still Hurting”) while Jaime’s arc is chronological as he begins by celebrating having met Cathy (‘Shiksa Goddess”). All scenes are solo save for the wedding where the two stories cross paths. Therefore, in the course of the show we are shown each character’s individual feelings through the steps of their time together.

Nina Stilbower (Cathy) and Daniel Draves (Jaime) from CCP’s production of “The Last Five Years”.

CCP’s production, directed by Bradley Allan Lowe with musical directors Ginger Stoltz and Ainsley Patton, is peopled by two very talented CCP new-comers, Nina Stilabower as Cathy and Daniel Draves as Jaime. Both are veteran performers who possess wonderful vocal talents and acting abilities – and both come through with amazing portrayals. Ms. Stilabower is near perfect as the struggling actress Cathy. Her remarkable voice, coupled with a winning sense of mood and emotion, makes her performance memorable. Her skills are obvious in her emotional opening song, “Still Hurting” and her playful “Summer in Ohio”. Mr. Draves, albeit seemingly a touch older than the character requirements for the successful novelist Jaime, pulls together a sensitive and well-thought out characterization, with powerful song interpretations, especially his “If I Didn’t Believe in You” and “Nobody Needs to Know”.

Director Lowe’s direction puts everything in order, although at times one has to really fix on what stage in Cathy’s reverse path we are witnessing, which is more a fault of the book than of any of Lowe’s choices. The set design by Lowe and Kassie Woodworth is very functional, while the live 6 piece orchestra is superior by most community theatre standards.

Though all the efforts of the CCP production staff, cast, and crew are nothing short of enjoyable and well-done, I do have some critiques of the work by Mr. Brown, the composer, lyricist and book provider. First, the 90 minute show is designed with 85% or so of the action being sung. The songs are beautiful, but they are crushingly lengthy. Many go on for 7 or 8 minutes, many are around 5, the shortest being around 3 and a half. In most cases the needed story is told in the first chorus or so, then refrains are set down to repeat the sadness or the joy. It led, in me (and perhaps me alone), to a certain impatience after the midway point of the show. Secondly, although I think that the innovative style of story arcing from two directions is clever, on further review this trick seems to have masked a rather ordinary tale. If told linearly, this would be a blandly unsurprising story of two people’s encounter – and one which many of us are only too familiar with. That said, the trick did the trick and somehow changed the blandness into an award winning show.

Finally, the matter of how the necessary precautions were handled for this extraordinary time of the pandemic. We were greeted at the door by a lady with a temperature reading device. Passing that, we were quickly checked in and allowed to take programs. Next we were helped to seats. The Cat’s rows of connected seats were available in the front of the space, and additional chairs on risers were set up in the back of the venue. We chose two seats on the aisle (natch) and were separated from patrons down our row. Everyone wore masks, including all the patrons – thank you! Sanitizer was available at the door and outside the restrooms. It was all pretty reassuring. The only mis-step was that two late patrons were seated in the seats directly in front of us, about 18 inches away. Likewise, there were two seats taken in front of them. Not exactly the social distancing guideline we have all been drilled on. For the most part, all was in good order, but I was surprised that separate single and double chairs weren’t used instead of the rows of normal seating.

Bottomline: Congrats to all involved in this endeavor. I asked one of the producers if there was much consternation about doing a show at this time. They replied that there was, but that the thinking 8 or so weeks ago when the project started being assembled was that we would be in a much better circumstance by now. Most of what can be done has been done to assure the audience’s safety. The show itself is a delight and is worthwhile if you are ready to break loose for a bit and enjoy some live theatre.

The Last Five Years continues Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays thru August 2nd. The CAT is located at 254 Veteran’s Way (formerly 254 1st Ave SW) in Carmel. Tickets may be purchased by visiting  http://www.carmelplayers.org or by calling (317) 815-9387.

  • – photos by Carmel Community Players