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Actors pushed out of comfort zones
Darren McCoy breaks into a bashful sort of grin.
He is sitting at a table in one of his favorite hangouts, Honeymoon Bay Coffee Roasters, telling a story about how his heart sank when he reached a certain point of a script he was reading for a musical he had agreed to perform in.
McCoy was delighted with the idea of doing the show, except for one dimly lit bedroom scene where he would sing a gut-wrenching song about a turning point in his character’s marriage.
Without a shirt.
“I saw the script and said, ‘Oh crap,’” McCoy said.
The scene was one of several challenges McCoy and others encountered in preparing for “The Last Five Years,” which opens Thursday night, Aug. 15, at the Whidbey Playhouse in Oak Harbor.
The off-season production is a departure from more conservative playhouse tradition. It’s a contemporary musical that examines a modern relationship using adult themes and some colorful language. It was a Broadway hit written by Jason Robert Brown, inspired by his own failed marriage.
“There is an expectation of the playhouse to be language friendly,” said Mary Kay Hallen, who directs the show and has been involved with the Whidbey Playhouse for 20 years. “But you stifle the art when you start dictating what the language should be because then you step on the toes of the author. It is very sparing, but it’s essential for character development.”
The only characters involved in “The Last Five Years” are Cathy Hiatt, a young aspiring actress played by Coupeville’s Heather Good; and Jamie Wellerstein, a young, talented writer played by Oak Harbor’s McCoy.
Good and McCoy are no strangers to Whidbey Playhouse musicals, having performed in leading roles before, yet this is one unlike any they’ve tackled.
“The Last Five Years” is a story about universal problems in relationships told through music. What makes it unique and particularly challenging for the actors is that Jamie goes through the story of his relationship with Cathy chronologically while Cathy goes through events in reverse order.
They alternate songs all the way through the show except for only two occasions when they sing together.
“It’s very challenging especially for Heather because her story goes backward,” McCoy said. “In a relationship, ideally, if it’s in order we’re both really happy. We’d have met. We get married. We both get really upset and we break up. But when it’s opposite, she’s upset when I’m happy. So she sings a song and she’s furious at me, saying all these swear words and cussing at me and doing all this stuff and is very angry, then I get up and say ‘Yeah, I’m really in love with this girl!’
“So it’s a roller-coaster ride for the audience emotionally.”
And an uphill climb for Good.
“The biggest challenge is it’s very easy to become happy and then get sad,” she said. “It’s very difficult to try to channel that sadness and feel the sadness and be able to express it to the audience and work backwards and become slowly happier and happier and happier. You’re sort of digging yourself out of this hole and sort of fighting uphill.”
The challenge was welcome for Good. In fact, the whole thing was her idea.
She approached McCoy last winter with the idea of pitching “The Last Five Years” to the Whidbey Playhouse board of directors for approval. But that wasn’t an easy task to pull off.
“It was a real challenge getting this one approved because there are only two people in this show,” McCoy said.
“It’s an off-season show, which means you don’t do a lot of shows. And the rights and royalties are more than any other show we’re doing this year because it’s new. ‘Meet Me in St. Louis’ was probably $900 (for the rights). This one is close to $3,000.”
“The Last Five Years” will only have six shows: Aug. 15, 16, 17, 22, 23 and 24. All start at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $14.
The producer of the show is Oak Harbor city councilwoman Tara Hizon. Sharon Burge is the accompanist.
McCoy, 29, and Good, 28, are two of the Whidbey Playhouse’s most musically-gifted young talents.
McCoy, the choral director at Oak Harbor High School, has spent the past two months gearing up for the show. He’s rehearsed with Good, a physician’s assistant at Whidbey General Hospital who moved to Whidbey Island from central Florida less than two years ago. And he’s hit the gym so the audience’s focus will be on his singing -- and not so much his physique -- when the shirt comes off.
He admits that taking off his shirt isn’t the only intimidating part of the show.
Good’s singing pushes him to perform better.
“Heather is very talented,” McCoy said. “When she takes the stage, she owns the stage. She has a hard job with this show. The guy who wrote it wrote it about his own relationship. Therefore, it’s very biased toward the guy. But to get the show to work, you have to get the audience to like the girl. It’s hard when the guy has better songs and the girl comes across as kind of whiny unless you act it well. And Heather is doing a brilliant job at delving into the character.”
McCoy’s transformation into his sometimes dark character has taken a little more time, according to Hallen.
He said he would rate the show PG-13 for some of the language and adult themes. He knows some of his high school students will be watching.
“I will tell you a little behind the scenes secret,” Hallen said with a smile. “Darren always blushed when he would swear and we had to train him not to.”
McCoy figured the benefits of performing in this show far outweighed the risks. Even though it meant spending the summer prepping, including considerable time on his laptop arranging music for his baritone voice type.
“I feel like I’m a better teacher if I remind myself every once in a while what it’s like to be the performer and not the director,” McCoy said. “Part of me also is thinking I don’t want to be the teacher that never does, the person who teaches, but doesn’t do. I can relate to my students better.”
“The Last Five Years” will be performed at the Whidbey Playhouse on only six dates: Aug. 15, 16, 17, 22, 23 and 24. All shows are at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $14 and may be purchased at the box office or ordered by calling 360-679-2237.