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Nowalk’s Latest A Personal Narrative

Observer Scene | Friday, April 25, 2008

“I’ve got a singular impression that things are movin’ too fast,” sings Matthew Callanan’s character Jamie Wellerstein. It might be a comment on the show’s one-act structure, but “The Last Five Years,” by the Farley Hall Players, which opens tonight at the Mainstage in Washington Hall, is over and done before you know it. But that might not be a bad thing.

The show is directed by junior Connor Nowalk and stars a pair of singing sophomores, placing Carolyn Rose Sullivan as Cathy Hiatt, an actress who can’t seem to catch a break, alongside Callanan’s character, a budding novel writer.

Written by Jason Robert Brown and first produced in Chicago in 2001, “The Last Five Years” does what its title suggests, recounting five years in the relationship of Jamie and Cathy, five years in which the couple come together and fall apart. And it does so in a single act.

But the musical also does something interesting with the story’s chronology. It starts at both the beginning and the end.

When Cathy first takes the stage, five years have spanned and her relationship with Jamie is over. Lost and hurt, she sings, “Jamie’s over and where can I turn.” But then Jamie takes the stage and the story rewinds back to the beginning, where Jamie, on his first date with Cathy, sings a comical little ditty about being Jewish and in love. From there, Jamie’s story progresses forward in time with his career, while Cathy’s tale, and career, slides backward.

The show has an impressive amount of singing. “Obviously vocal stamina has been a challenge,” Nowalk said, “But its something we knew we were going to have to work on from the beginning, so we got it working from the start.”

Between the two of them, Callanan and Sullivan sing fourteen different pieces before the end of the one-act, and with no more than a few moments rest between songs.

As well, each piece has a different feel and style. With violinist Joe Edmonds and pianist Mark Wurzelbacher playing in the background, Callanan and Sullivan sing through a number of musical genres, expressing their character’s love and frustration with one another.

Cathy’s second song begins as a quiet little reflection on a pier, but quickly becomes an accusatory rant as she berates Jamie for leaving her alone while attending to his rising literary career. In the middle of her song, Jamie appears in spotlight on the other side of the stage – a flashback – talking on the phone with an agent. He learns that his career is taking off. The spotlight switches back to Cathy and she begins to yell at him, “You and you and nothing but you / Miles and piles of you / Pushing through windows and bursting through walls / En route to the sky / And I…”

The funniest part of the play might be when Cathy sings sarcastically about spending the summer separated from Jamie. “I could shove an ice pick in my eye / I could eat some fish from last July / But it wouldn’t be as awful as a summer in Ohio,” she sings. And if that image doesn’t prove her point, she goes onto to sing, “I could get a root canal in hell, but it wouldn’t be as swell as this summer is gonna be.”

“The Last Five Years” is a show Nowalk has been looking forward to putting on for a long time. “It’s been one of my favorites. The first song I heard was ‘The Next Ten Minutes’ and I was like, ‘That is a great song,'” Nowalk said.

“The Next Ten Minutes,” which comes on the heels of Cathy’s Ohio diatribe, is the first time in which the two characters directly interact in the same chronological space. Singing about sharing “the next ten minutes” and “the next ten years,” the character’s two stories intersect, with Jamie proposing and marrying Cathy. The story’s structure then reassumes its separate ways, as Cathy progresses backward to the beginning, and Jamie moving more rapidly toward the end.

“The Last Five Years” is a play about communication and its breakdowns. The anxieties of separation the play addresses are things Nowalk feels students will be able to relate to. “People can relate to it, the feelings that come up, and it’s just a great show. It’s not an experience that you want to miss.”

Moreover he feels the show is an excellent showcase for the cast. “[The play] shows off the talent here at Notre Dame. We have two incredibly talented performers, singers and actors as well as a violin and piano player.”

But Nowalk said he feels the play does something else.

“I think that musical theater has a lot of connotations. A lot people think they have a good idea of what it means,” he said. “This is a different possibility of what musical theater can be and I think it’s a success.”

The Farley Hall Players’ show isn’t terribly long, and that might be its strength. It dives into the lives Jamie and Cathy, taking the audience along for a ride amidst their love, fear and separation, before coming to a close. And it’s a ride, which if experienced, surely won’t be regretted.

Contact Mark Witte at [email protected].