‘The Last Five Years’ is a heartbreaking, delicate piece of musical gorgeousness

In recent years, Jason Robert Brown’s “The Last Five Years” has been getting a lot of attention, culminating in a major motion pictures starring Anna Kendrick, but before all that, some five years ago, Penfold Theatre brought forth their own production of the play, which garnered the fledgling company heavy praise, and as well as numerous awards, including the Austin Critics Table Award for Best Musical. Now, the company, led by the immense talent that is Michael McKelvey, is re-staging the hit, bringing back most of the original cast and crew, and in the process creating magic once again, providing the kind of theatrical lightning that, luckily, actually can strike the same place twice

The story at the heart of “The Last Five Years”, the tale of two young lovers in New York, is nothing new, but it’s the way that it’s told that makes it fascinating. We start the play with Cathy, our young heroine, a struggling actress, as she discovers her husband has left her. In the next song, we meet said husband, Jamie, an up-and-coming writer, right at the beginning of the relationship. We continue this back-and-forth throughout, with the actors never sharing scenes, until right before the intermission, where we see the proposal and marriage. From there, we see the rest of the story, with Cathy springing towards the starry-eyed beginning of the love affair, and Jamie making his way to its tragic end.

The role of Cathy is a bit of an acting test for a young musical actress, as it takes a very versatile performer to take on the role. Sarcastic, sensitive, and vulnerable, Cathy can be a complex animal, and the journey that she goes on throughout the play is a roller coaster, so it’s to Sara Burke’s credit that her performance feels so authentic. When I first saw her on stage at an early age as the title character in “Sweet Charity”, it was immediately evident that there something special about her, but here she reaches heights I never would have imagined, reaching down and finding a real vulnerability to her person, and a kind of a cabaret bravado and courage that leaves audiences in awe. Indeed, her plucky rendition of “A Summer in Ohio” was one of the most delightful moments this critic has had the honor of seeing in quite some time.

David Gallagher, Burke’s partner in the play, may not meet her belt for belt, but what he brings to the table is an emotional earnestness that’s hard not to admire. He never seems to be just acting out the part, but living it, wearing it like his favorite coat. This isn’t to say he doesn’t have the pipes to get the job done, as the constant syncopation and key changes that lurk within Jamie’s songs are a trick in and of themselves, and Gallagher plays these off with aplomb. He also helps us to empathize with his character, which can be a difficult task considering his actions can be morally suspect throughout the play.

Penfold Theatre’s “The Last Five Years” is an emotional gut punch, featuring a pair brilliantly entertaining and blistering soul-wrenching performances from its two leads, who give what could possibly be the performances of their careers. Penfold continues on their roll of charming, sensitive plays, expertly creating such emotionally relevant experiences that you’ll wonder why they don’t provide Kleenex when you purchase your tickets, because believe me, after this one, you’ll need them.

“The Last Five Years” is playing at Trinity Street theatre through April 12, and runs an hour and forty minutes. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit penfoldtheatre.org.

Photo Courtesy of Kimberley Mead

‘The Christians’: A thoughtful and confident examination of faith and compassion

Hyde Park has often presented works that turn the audience’s eyes towards society at large, and with their latest, they turn the camera on religion, but those expecting trenchant comedy or biting satire should perhaps go elsewhere. Lucas Hnath’s “The Christians” is a heartbreaking examination of what it means to be a Christian, and the battle between faith and compassion. It’s one of the most emotionally complex plays that Hyde Park has ever explored, and it’s to the company’s, and especially director Ken Webster’s, credit that they are able to carry the piece with such assuredness.

“The Christians” opens in the pulpit of a thousand-member mega-church, as we are serenaded by the glorious voices of a soul choir, led by renowned musical artist and actress, Kelley Glover. Soon we are introduced to Pastor Paul, played by Ken Webster, who presents his churchgoers with a startling revelation, which will soon leave his church fractured. We’re presented by scene after scene of emotional tumult, as the consequences of this revelation take hold within the church, and soon in the everyday life of Pastor Paul himself.

It is far too easy to play staunch, mega-church Christians as proud, egotistical figures, but each actors here brings forth an honest soulfulness to their performances. Webster has brought together a group of truly skilled actors who are not afraid of showing vulnerability or doubt, who come to the proceedings with a raw passion that’s nothing short of palpable. Webster himself show why he’s so acclaimed, as he weaves and modulates through the text like the best artist at their loom. There is never a moment where we doubt his sincerity, and in the final parts of the play, when we see his veneer of professionalism begin to crack, it’s enough to bring one to tears.

Also providing soul-stirring work is Jessica Hughes, whose every cadence, every facial twitch tells a story, her awkward delivery style helping to create a fully functional character. With her short time on stage, she takes us on a real emotional journey, at the same time acting as a mouthpiece for many of the audience’s own opinions and doubts. Watching her worried smile break to a sorrow is truly gripping, and her ability to command the stage while remaining so true to her meek character is quite powerful.

Joey Hood also does amazing work with his short time on stage, as the charismatic, faithful Associate Pastor Joshua. While the closest thing we find to an antagonist in the piece, we never for a moment doubt that his motives are any less than pure, and part of this is because of the intense conviction that Hood brings to the role.

Forgoing easy critique for complex emotion, “The Christians” isn’t a play interested in easy questions, and it’s certainly not interested in giving simple answers, and in that way it might just be one of Hyde Park Theatre’s most successful plays. It’s an examination of not just what it means to be a Christian, but what it means to be human, and Hyde Park carries its message with conviction, confidence, and a thoughtful sensitivity.

“The Christians” runs 90 minutes without an intermission, and is playing at Hyde Park Theatre March 28 at Hyde Park Theatre. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit hydeparktheatre.org.

Photo Courtesy of Hyde Park Theatre

Ballet Austin’s ‘Belle Redux’ is a dark vision of the classic fairy tale

The story of Beauty and the Beast has been told in many ways, but never has it veered into such dark avenues as in Ballet Austin’s production of Belle Redux. Wrenching out the most shadowy alcoves of the classic French tale, the Ballet, formulated in the mind of Stephen Mills, tells us a tale of a beast torn between good and evil, and the beautiful young woman who loves him despite it all. It takes many different turns than the original story, but what remains is a beauty and wonder that’s beyond compare.

The world in which Belle Redux lives is a dark one, but it’s admirable how everything that happens on stage is in service to that mood. From the sharp, striking movements of the dancers, to Michael Raiford’s startling costumes, which shows heavy and intriguing use of leather and hoods, to the well-timed projection work. Underscoring it all is the eerie and industrial score by nationally-recognized composer Graham Reynolds, who channels his own Philip Glass to plunge the audience into dark soundscapes, which help to center us right in the heart of darkness.

Among the darkness of the play, there are few performances that bring a refreshing light. One of the most surprising is Frank Shott as Belle’s father, whose beaming smile and uplifting demeanor help to bring a little bit of sunshine of most of the gray skies of the ballet. Our heroine, Belle, played by Michelle Thompson also brings her brightness, as from her lithe, smooth movement and easy air make every scene she’s in shine. The costumes also help in this, as her colorful costumes stand in stark contrast to the black, grays, and browns that predominate the color scheme.

Belle Redux is a nightmarishly gorgeous piece, pulling from sources as varied as the original story, Jean Cocteau’s French classic, and even a little of Disney’s well-known animated film, to create some wildly unique. Forgoing the story’s usual high romance for something more akin to dread, Ballet Austin’s Belle Redux still weaves a potent spell, one a bit more sinister, though not any less seductive.

Photo Courtesy of Tony Spielberg