Theatre Review: The Last Five Years

Lionfish Productions is a startup organization headed by Diana Kaarina and Danny Balkwill, who are also the stars of Lionfish’s current production – The Last Five Years. A song cycle by Jason Robert Brown, The Last Five Years is a favourite among the musical theatre community, but hardly known anywhere else. While it doesn’t have the flashiness of a big stage, and consequently never went to Broadway, the music is beautiful, the lyrics clever, and the story well thought out.

The plot is a commonplace one: it follows a musical theatre actress, Cathy (Diana Kaarina) and a fiction writer, Jamie (Danny Balkwill) from their first time meeting to the end of their five year long relationship. The twist? Jamie tells his story in chronological order, but Cathy tells hers backwards, starting at the end of their marriage and progressing back to their first date. This unusual storytelling means that the audience’s emotions are constantly in flux, as they are tossed between the beginning of the story, with upbeat, comedic songs, and the more dramatic, heartfelt ending.

Kaarina and Balkwill each have impressive resumes which include Broadway productions and touring casts. The only downside for these experienced actors in this particular production is that they were clearly too old to play 23-28 year olds. One might forgive them for casting themselves in such young roles, because there are so few opportunities to do The Last Five Years. I applaud their ability to shrug off conventions in order to do what they love – for it was perfectly clear that they did.

With few breaks from singing strenuous, dynamic music, and an intermission-less 85 minute show, the quality of their voices was astonishing. Diana Kaarina’s belting voice sails like a dream, and Danny Balkwill’s singing was on par as well, but his acting took the performance to another level. His transition from the silly boy singing “Shmuel” at the beginning, to the chilling man writing his goodbye letter at the end, made the show into more than just a series of well written songs.

The set was interesting, using a picture frame to transition between time periods. Also, the six-piece orchestra was perfect for the song cycle – which is frequently done with a very condensed band.

Lionfish Productions’ The Last Five Years should be jumped upon by anyone who likes music, because you won’t be seeing it live in Vancouver again for a while. If you do miss this production, though, a movie version – starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan – opens in theatres this weekend. Lionfish certainly had good timing on that one.

The Last Five Years runs at the PAL Studio Theatre until February 14th. Tickets available online or at the door.

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