Beautiful Theater in Canton Warms the Heart on a Chilly Night

Brooke Lytton and Brian Hirsch in one of their few interactions during the powerful “The Last Five Years” playing at Avenue Arts in Canton until January 13.

Single-digit temps, sub-zero windchills, and dealing with a nasty bout of the seasonal uglies–sounds like the perfect recipe for a night at home cuddled up to a hot toddy or some chicken soup, right?  Yet for some reason I found myself braving the arctic snorts, which ripped through the streets of downtown Canton, to catch a show tonight. The Last Five Years, a beautiful and raw musical written by Jason Allen Brown, is playing now until January 13th at the Kathleen Howland Theatre–a quaint little black box that resides in the basement of Avenue Arts Marketplace at 325 Cleveland Avenue NW. If you have only been privy to the Anna Kendrick film version, you owe it to yourself to see this one live.  There is something so powerful about this story with a single piano in a small theater.

The show’s story explores the relationship highs and lows of Jamie (an up and coming novelist) and Cathy (a struggling actress) over a five year period.  In musical revue style, characteristic of Brown’s work, this story uniquely has the two players storylines travel in reverse order of each other.  Cathy’s story arc goes from the end of the relationship and works in reverse chronological order, and Jamie goes from the freshness of a new relationship to the union’s sad end. Their paths only cross in a lovely and tender wedding scene.

I am hard pressed to remember if there were any props other than two barstools, which were used to great effect by the way.  But this does not change fact that the show was riveting from the start and completely worked.  It was due no doubt to the the great vision and blocking of director Jared Sparks.

Immediately as the lights faded, Brown’s score–impeccably and emotively plucked by local musical pit veteran Brent Schloneger–transported us to the sadness of Cathy. Brooke Lytton’s rendition of “I’m Still Hurting” was raw and powerful and was a perfect open to the show. I was very lightly familiar with Brooke from her work in an ensemble capacity in the Players Guild’s production of Cabaret last year, but I had no idea the breadth of her talent.  Over the night, her singing would run the gambit from sweet, soft, and tightly controlled to a loose, loud, and brimming with visceral raw emotion, tear. Her facial expressions and movement were perfectly stated for the role.  She is a impressive artist.

I knew that if Brian Hirsch’s Jamie was near the same caliber, I would be in for a treat.  I was not disappointed.  Brian bounded onto the scene bubbling with a clever and funky little ditty which told the funny story of the Jewish boy’s pairing with the non-Jewish girl “Shiksa Goddess.” Hirsch has some major pipes and he deftly navigated many styles ranging from gritty Rock to tender ballad. His comedic chops are to be applauded.  His accents in “The Schmuel Song” were downright hilarious and spot on. His dramatic acting skill, his perfect nuanced movement, and his everyman good looks served Jamie’s character well.  His high notes should melt the hearts of any girls (or guys) in attendance. 

If I had a critique, it would be that I found the lighting at times to be a bit harsh and white. I noticed that the performers, specifically Hirsch, seemed to have difficulty adjusting his eyes to the stark contrast.  A little bit warmer tone or less intensity may have helped sell the story and would have allowed Hirsch to use those dreamy eyes more to his advantage by being able to open them a bit wider.

Probably the greatest part about the night is that I forgot about my horrible throat-scraping cough and the bitter cold for the show’s runtime of one hour, twenty minutes–my reality near-perfectly suspended by a talented group of performers, directors, and musicians from our own neck of the woods.  It is certainly worth the $15 ticket price at, and a trek into the cold night to enjoy this level of craft in our own backyard.

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