The musical that set the bar for COVID-19
In Jason Robert Brown’s musical, “The Last Five Years,” Brown tells the story of a struggling married couple in New York trying, and eventually failing, to make their differences work. Its small cast size allowed for artists in the musical to stand out. Among these strong performers are two of Northwestern State University’s talented seniors: Emily Ricalde as Cathy Hyatt and Trevor Brown as Jamie Wellerstein.
“The Last Five Years” was not only an opportunity to showcase Ricalde and Brown’s talents, but it was also an opportunity to provide some semblance of live theater during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Grace Edgar, assistant professor of musical theater, jumped at the opportunity to produce this musical.
“Due to the pandemic, Northwestern State University Theater and Dance has minimized exposure by creating more performance opportunities with smaller cast sizes,” Edgar said. “I wanted to ensure that our senior musical theater concentrators, Emily Ricalde and Trevor Brow, had an opportunity to perform a major role in a musical during their last semester before graduation.”
Edgar stated that the process was not only an emotional rollercoaster for the cast and crew, but for the audience as well.
“‘The Last Five Years’ is challenging vocally and emotionally for the singers and joyful and heartbreaking for the audience. It is theater that speaks directly to the human experiences and causes us to reflect with sharp bittersweetness on our own lost loves,” Edgar said.
Both Ricalde and Brown previously appeared in “Into the Woods” and “Spring Awakening,” among many other shows for NSU’s School of Creative and Performing Arts. Neither actor was a stranger to Jason Robert Brown’s work. Both performed in his “Songs for a New World” during the 2019-2020 musical season.
Brown agrees that his and Ricalde’s professional relationship is rock-solid.
“I feel we are both smart and professional actors, so creating chemistry between the characters we played was not hard, we have had plenty of practice from those previous shows,” Brown said.
Their professional relationship definitely played a role in interpreting Cathy and Jamie’s relationship onstage.
“The one thing that was exciting for both of us was that the characters of Jamie and Cathy are dealing with completely different emotions at the top of the show, Jamie being at the beginning of their relationship and Cathy being at the very bitter end,” Brown said.
Creating the role of Jamie was eye-opening for Brown. He stated the process was a malleable one.
“We spent a lot of time in rehearsals discussing what path we wanted to take with the role, and we fell upon Jamie developing as an egotistical narcissist when he found more and more success with his writing as the show progresses,” Brown said.
Ricalde also reflected on process of creating her character.
“The process of creating the role of Cathy was very fast, as we only had 8 rehearsals until our show opened. It was a rollercoaster but I loved every second of it,” Ricalde said.
Ricalde stated that creating a character is a moldable process.
“I thought I had a very clear idea of Cathy in my mind going into it, but she morphed and changed into a different person throughout the process,” Ricalde said.
Even though the process was very fast-paced, it still followed all the necessary COVID-19 safety precautions. “The Last Five Years” has a cast of two singers. The only other people in the rehearsal space were Edgar, Daniel and Ley, the music director and accompanist.
“The four of us took our temperatures and monitored our health closely. Daniel, Ley and I wore our masks and socially distanced from the performers,” Edgar said.
As opposed to strictly streaming the production, there was an invited audience of 20 people and a streaming link sent out to members of the Department of Theater and Dance.
In spite of the precautions, the invited audience expressed a certain level of excitement at seeing live theater again. This production aided the Department of Theater and Dance in figuring out how they were going to reintroduce a standard component of live theater: the audience.