‘The Last Five Years’ makes the most of a small cast


Sarah Connor | Contributing Editor

Juliana Pillets and Dan Mayhak perform as Cathy and Jamie in the two-character musical “The Last Five Years” during a rehearsal before their show Thursday evening.

By Apoorva Kethidi, For The Pitt News

Only two characters carry the “The Last Five Years,” a multi-genre musical that tracks the emotional course of young love and heartbreak. Originally written and directed by Tony Award-winning composer Jason Robert Brown, the story has found a new home at the Richard E. Rauh Studio Theatre.

Cathy and Jamie — played by Pitt students Juliana Pillets and Dan Mayhak, respectively — are two modern day 20-something New Yorkers. Cathy is struggling to find work as an actress and Jamie is an aspiring author who is suddenly offered an incredible book deal. As their paths diverge, the young lovers’ relationship also begins to shift and change.

Part of the story begins in November 2018, with a hurt and unhappy Cathy grieving the end of her marriage, while Jamie’s storyline begins in 2013, overjoyed to have met Cathy and finally date outside his Jewish heritage. Everything afterwards proceeds in an opposite parallel fashion with settings in both New York and Ohio.

An intimate musical, “The Last Five Years” eschews the traditional formula of musical theatre and introduces a distinct, new structure that sees Jamie’s storyline moving forward through the relationship while Cathy moves backwards, with both characters meeting briefly on stage as their stories intertwine in the middle of the production.

For such a song-and-dance heavy show, it’s surprising to learn that preparation for “The Last Five Years” began only three weeks ago. Though director Chloe Torrence — a senior theatre arts major — applied for the musical last year, she only had about a month to get her actors, choreographers, stage designers and musicians ready.

“This show has always been in the back of my mind,” Torrence said. “Brainstorming how I could do it differently than other people have, and thinking about what I can bring to the story that hasn’t been brought or elevate what’s already there.”

Despite the time crunch, Torrence was more than up for the challenge.

“I really wanted to challenge myself because I always put on these musicals that are happy. I love joy and spectacle, but I wanted to force myself to work small scale, with a smaller amount of people and on a difficult piece,” Torrence — who has directed “Legally Blonde” with Pitt Musical Theatre Club and “Roustabout” with Pitt Stages — said.

Pillets, a junior communication major who plays the lead role of Cathy, echoed Torrence’s sentiments. She believes the limited time played a positive factor during the preparation process.

“[The preparation] was intense but good,” Pillets said. “When you do it all at one time, you don’t have a lot of time to think so your emotions are more raw and more natural because there isn’t time to second-guess yourself.”

Unlike most musicals, the two leads spend most of their time separate and not directly communicating with one another due to the unconventional structure of the story. While the mere idea of being alone on a stage is incredibly frightening to most, Pillets was more than able to work her way around it.

“It was interesting because usually you can play off other people on stage and you can use their energy to help and assist you,” Pillets said. “When you are out there on your own it can be a little bit intimidating, but you can rely on the audience to give you that energy.”

While the story was originally written to only have two characters, there are an additional three in this production — a creative choice made by Torrence.

“We call them ‘artistic assistants.’ It’s normally two people just standing there and singing. There’s not much movement, there’s not much storytelling other than with their voices,” Torrence said. “So, we’ve added these three people to help move the story forward and see characters we never get to see, and have a lot of different points of view.”

The artistic assistants — Brad Keller, Megan Knorr and Lauren Skillinge — add a new level of depth to the show. Though none have speaking or singing roles, all of them dance throughout the performance. And not just scene transitioning dances, but also interpretive dances choreographed by Jacqueline Perich, a first-year majoring in public and nonprofit management. Whether they act as objects (the show has very few props), or side characters, the assistants help the audience visualize and understand the story better.

Another piece of this show that allows a more immersive experience for the audience is the orchestra  — which is under the conduction of sophomore Ryan Lidgett. Lidgett is a chemistry major and theatre arts minor, making his UP Stages debut with “The Last Five Years.” Though Lidgett knew he would be conducting the show a few months ago, his actual time to prepare was similar to that of the rest of the cast.

“It’s a time crunch to get everyone together. With everyone’s own parts, they’re learning their own thing,” Lidgett said. “Bringing everyone together like the technical, the music, the acting and melding it together is the challenging part.”

However, it never deterred him from doing what he needed to do.

“It’s my job to interpret the music, so I worked with the actors a little bit during rehearsals. We talked about making certain choices and about how to interpret the music and vocals,” he said. “However, most of my time is spent with the orchestra since the cast is so small.”

For Torrence, the intimate show turned out to be exactly what she wanted this time around.

“[I didn’t want a show that was] like ‘here’s the problem, and then we fix it,’” she said. “This show is very real life, very deep, very raw and emotional.”


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