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Remote debut

Millennial Theatre Company revisits ‘The Last Five Years’

A lot has happened in the last three years since Millennial Theatre Company last staged “The Last Five Years.”

The biggest change is a pandemic that has kept MTC and nearly every other local theater from performing for a live audience.

The group used Hopewell Theatre’s intimate performance space in Youngstown for its 2018 production of the two-character musical written by Jason Robert Brown.

“We only did one weekend, and the cast and I always joked about doing a revival at some point or a concert version or putting songs online at the very least,” director Joe Asente said. “Once we got through ‘Songs from the New World’ (an early musical by Brown that MTC presented online last fall) and realized how we could do it, the rights came available for ‘Last Five Years’ for remote performances.”

MTC will take its new production of “The Last Five Years” online, debuting Feb. 26 and available through April 30.

The cast is the same, with Josh Fleming playing Jamie Wellerstein, an author, and Rosie Bresson playing Cathy Hiatt, a struggling actress.

“It was like putting on an old glove, an old friend,” Fleming said. “It all comes back to you after a while, the muscle memory. It was such a cool experience. I told Joe I’d only do it if Rosie could do it with me. I’d only feel comfortable if I could do it with her.”

Bresson agreed.

“Joe and I had talked about doing the show again in a casual way,” she said. “Then to get a text, ‘Hey, do you want to come do this again?,’ wow, of course. Especially at a time like this when there’s not a lot of artistic opportunities, it’s a win-win situation.”

The structural device of the show has the characters’ stories told in opposite directions. Jamie’s songs chronicle their relationship from the time they first meet, while Cathy’s songs start with the end of the marriage and go backwards five years.

“I think it’s a perfect story for our theater company,” Asente said. “It’s about two young people trying to find their way in life, both through their relationship and careers, trying to figure out who they are. We try to make the work we do relevant to our generation, but it’s also relatable to any generation at any age. It’s something we all can relate to.”

Except for the song “The Next 10 Minutes,” when their stories intersect and the couple gets married, Jamie and Cathy perform their songs without interacting. Usually, only Cathy or Jamie is on stage at any given time.

Asente didn’t want to mimic the style of the 2014 film with Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan — he said he hadn’t seen it for a couple of years and he intentionally didn’t go back and watch it again — but staging it for the camera allowed him to incorporate both actors into many of the scenes.

The characters still don’t interact on the solo numbers, but the audience will be able to see Cathy’s reaction to some of Jamie’s songs and vice versa.

Asente said he thinks the approach he took to the on-camera production will make it easier to follow for those who are unfamiliar with the musical and its structure.

“I think for sure, having both characters on stage, there’s a better understanding of why the story is told both forward and backward, how that method of storytelling adds to the story. Those who go in unfamiliar with that concept, a lot of it gets lost in translation with them talking by themselves on a black stage, a black cube. Not singing or speaking back to the other, but seeing that emotion really adds a new layer to it.”

The production was set at a variety of locations in the area. All three mentioned Mill Creek MetroParks as their favorite spot, and it was a return for Fleming and Bresson. The actors took promo photos at the park for the 2018 production, and that photo shoot was their first meeting.

That’s where they shot the wedding scene, but it was done in January, which meant Bresson had to stand outside in a wedding dress with temperatures flirting with single digits.

“It was a little cold,” she said.

“We had to stop a couple times to put Rosie in a coat,” Fleming added.

Both actors enjoyed getting another opportunity to revisit these characters.

“I think I’m a little closer to where Cathy was in life than I was three years ago,” Bresson said. “Over the past three years, I’ve had some of the most formative experiences I’ve had in theater. At YSU doing ‘Cabaret’ and ‘How I Learned to Drive’ pushed me as an actor and as a person, how I see the world … It gave me a little different approach.”

Fleming, 28, now is the same age as Jamie is at the end of his story, although he described himself as a “man-child” who still relates to the younger, more carefree version of Jamie at the beginning of the relationship.

“For older Jamie, I have to find the seriousness in all of the scenes where he’s very self-centered and hurting because of what’s going on,” he said.

The biggest challenge for the actors was recording their vocals in advance before the scenes were shot and having to match their on-camera performances to those vocals.

“It’s a lot more work on Rosie and Josh,” Asente said. “You have to make all of your acting choices before you get to set. It’s a lot of prep work. They’re recording in November a scene they wouldn’t film until late January, and you have to get back into the same frame of thinking.”

Millennial Theatre Company has another online production — the murder mystery musical “A Killer Party” — in the works for an April debut, but Asente said he is looking forward to returning to more traditional performances later in the year.

“We don’t have any streaming shows in the works after ‘Killer Party,'” he said. “I’m hoping and praying by summer we can get back to live theater.”

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