Love, differing priorities and sweeping musical ballads are what audiences can tune into this weekend in the second installment of Penn State Centre Stage’s spring lineup.
Penn State School of Theatre premiered "The Last Five Years" last night, a musical originally written by Jason Robert Brown in 2001.
Two decades later, it was brought to life by actors Becca Suskauer and Jake Pedersen and director Jennifer Delac.
The show is being shared with the audience via a video stream.
The musical focuses on the breakdown of the relationship between Jamie Wellerstein and Cathy Hiatt with a combination of flashbacks and chronological storytelling. Both characters present their separate perspectives—with a twist.
Becca Suskauer, who plays Cathy, explained the structure of the musical.
“The story is told backwards in time by Cathy, and told forwards in time by Jamie,” Suskauer (senior-musical theater) said. “It’s sort of a beautiful and heartbreaking dichotomy.”
When the curtains open, Cathy is already lamenting the end of her marriage. When we first meet her counterpart, Jamie, the story shifts to five years before, when he is thrilled to have just met Cathy.
Between these two distinct points lies a story brimming with musical numbers explaining a buildup and a fallout.
“The show is basically about a relationship between two people and their perspectives through the last five years,” Pedersen (senior-musical theater) said. “You get to see both of their perspectives on the relationship and how they handle life in general and what they care about.”
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A recurring conflict in the musical is the discrepancy between the successes of the two young artists living in New York City and, at times, Ohio. Jamie, a rising novelist, finds success with his writing, while Cathy, an aspiring actress, struggles in gaining career momentum.
“A central aspect is two different artists and their careers, and what it’s like when one succeeds and one isn’t succeeding and how they support each other throughout that,” Suskauer said. “For my character, she’s falling out of love with her career and into love with Jamie.”
Jamie, who begins his career driven to grasp every opportunity he can, eventually becomes more distracted by his success and less interested in his relationship with Cathy.
“He's in love with this woman, but he’s also in love with this career,” Pedersen said of his character. “Those butt heads, but he constantly tries to combine the two.”
Although Pedersen was able to relate to the excited energy that Jamie experiences at the beginning of his career, he found it a challenge to portray a character who he said he feels is often in the wrong.
“When it comes to breakups, people pick sides even though they don’t mean to. A lot of people tell me — and I also feel the same way — ‘You don’t really root for Jamie at the end, he’s kind of a jerk,’” Pedersen said. “The most exciting part of the show for me was convincing the audience that Jamie is human.”
As Pedersen and Suskauer plan to hit the streets of New York City and begin their careers post graduation, they both found parts of Jamie’s career-prioritization relatable.
“It’s not as much of a challenge to grasp onto the circumstance [at the beginning of the show], because I’m about to graduate too and go and do things in the real world,” Pedersen said before explaining how it was a bit more difficult to place himself into the mindset of a married man.
Suskauer found herself a bit challenged playing a character who was becoming disenchanted with acting, as she has plans to find success in the theatre world herself.
“I was scared of Cathy at first because I am very much goal-oriented and career-oriented,” Suskauer said. “Jamie is very much career first and then relationship, and Cathy is very much relationship and then career, so stepping into that was new for me.”
Although Suskauer’s current career-driven mind tends to line up more with the character of Jamie than Cathy, she was still able to find common ground with her character.
“Cathy can be played a million ways,” Suskauer said. “I think she’s very kind and puts other people before herself, and she’s a giver. I started to figure out throughout the process that we are a lot alike. Maybe we have different priorities and we’re at different places in life, but she’s very easy to love.”
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Due to the coronavirus, theater productions have been few and far between.
Although the production of The Last Five Years only involved a crew and two actors, Suskauer and Pedersen wore masks throughout the show. They both described how the masks affected their rehearsals in unforeseen ways.
“You lose half of your face, which is challenging,” Pedersen said. “But I ended up discovering that you can do so much more with the way you pronounce things and the way you emphasize your words.”
Suskauer also noted how different singing is when you are straining to get your voice through the covering of a face mask.
“Singing, what I consider to be one of the most difficult theatrical scores, in two masks and a plastic spacer — it is very difficult. Even skilled singers would have a very difficult time sustaining in this two month period,” Suskauer said. “This was really a challenge, and I really had to take care of my voice. I had to double down on that.
Despite the challenges the actors faced due to coronavirus restrictions, both Pedersen and Suskauer, who call each other “best friends” in real life, said they were proud of the production.
“I love this show because it really highlights how nuanced and complex a relationship is,” Suskauer said. “I think that’s a really beautiful thing about this show.”
The Last Five Years will be playing tonight, Saturday and Sunday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets to the stream can be purchased here.
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