A spunky show of love

Linden Furnell and Mina Ellen Kaye charm with their powerhouse vocals in the musical, The Last Five Years.

Review: THE LAST FIVE YEARS

Dream Academy/Dream Studio @ Henderson/Last Saturday

SINGAPORE - Dream Academy, known for its glitzy musical revues and slick stand-up shows, has fashioned a cosy little space in its Henderson Industrial Park studio for some off-Broadway action.

And christening its newly renovated black box space is a crowd-pleasing musical: American composer Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years (2001).

The sung-through musical tracks a five-year relationship between Jamie (Linden Furnell), a novelist who finds meteoric success, and Cathy (Mina Ellen Kaye), an actress struggling to find her footing. His storyline unfolds in chronological order; hers, in reverse.

Their songs tumble through excerpts of fights, disagreements and frustrations, but also the highs of romance and the fuzzy warmth of love and loyalty.

There is a hint of Stephen Sondheim's devastating Merrily We Roll Along (1981) here - Merrily also works in reverse, backpedalling from a jaded present day to a bright-eyed past.

Sondheim, however, really got his hands into the gritty, grubby underbelly of adult relationships and the smoking debris they can leave behind, while this dalliance with bittersweetness holds back those punches and goes for easy listening instead.

First-time director Jasmine Teo opts for a stripped-down, minimal staging, which means the responsibility rests heavily on Furnell and Kaye to propel the show along.

They do so commendably, carving out a believable emotional journey as Furnell's Jamie battles a crumbling faith and Kaye's Cathy turns increasingly buoyant.

They are both likeable, transcending the general stasis of the production when it comes to action and movement.

Furnell's aw-shucks boy-next-door charm tempers a role that could have ruptured with the overripeness of a smug novelist. Instead, there is a genuine warmth and exuberance that comes with his newfound success, whether he is raking in an advance or battling the temptation to stray.

Kaye brings that wonderful combination of poise and vulnerability to her Cathy, particularly in a wickedly funny song about the inner voice of every actor's head during an off-key audition: "Why did I pick these shoes? Why did I pick this song? Why did I pick this career? Why does this pianist hate me?"

With their powerhouse vocals, the duo breeze through all 14 thoroughly demanding songs almost effortlessly, and their vocal finesse is a joy to listen to.

But what I find most problematic about the show, despite the spunky performances that give it its heart, is the amount of narrating they must do.

Because the actors hardly interact, there is a certain he-said, she-said quality to their performances.

Every song tells and never shows, and so the theatregoers see very little of who these two individuals actually are or the quirks that make them real.

Even in the most keenly felt moments, the love that Jamie and Cathy share is difficult to envision as anything but abstract, while they each remain boxed away in their own little worlds.

One also wonders how the show might have played out if she were the successful writer and he the struggling actor, subverting the expectation that the man must be the breadwinner and trailblazer, with his woman limping along behind.

Despite its flaws, The Last Five Years will be playing over the Valentine's Day weekend, and it is refreshing for anyone needing an antidote to the onslaught of saccharine, dewy-eyed romance.

Book it: THE LAST FIVE YEARS

Where: Dream Studio @ Henderson, 203A Henderson Road, Henderson Industrial Park 02-01

When: Thursday and Friday, 8pm, Saturday, 3 and 8pm

Admission: $30 from Dream Academy (e-mail boxoffice@dreamacademy.com.sg or call 9874-4465)

Info: www.dreamacademy.com.sg

corriet@sph.com.sg


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