Theatre is a large part of husband and wife Jason Aycock and Heather Setzler’s lives. The two first met while doing Opera House Theatre Company’s “Grease” in 2005, began dating a year later, then married onstage at Thalian Hall.
“Then after that we started working on our next show!” Aycock says.
They have married their passions for acting and each other in a way dream couples do: letting love fuse the two seamlessly. When not performing together, directing shows, directing each other, or fulfilling hosting duties, like at the 2017 StarNews Wilmington Theatre Awards in January, they also enjoy travel. The two have taken trips on their anniversary every year, from London to Disney and this year, Hawaii. In addition to celebrating on an island, they’re hitting the stage in an anniversary show, “The Last Five Years,” by Jason Robert Brown. “Since we’ve been married five years, it seemed appropriate,” Setzler tells. The only difference: There is no end in sight for Setzler and Aycock.
“The Last Five Years” stages the beginning and end of a relationship between main characters Jamie and Cathy. Jamie is singing about their life together forward, from the first time they met, as Cathy is singing about it backward, from the last time they met. The two come together in the middle—the day of their wedding.
“I still can’t decide who’s ‘fault’ the break up is,” Aycock tells. “It’s like my favorite song in the show: It changes each time I listen to or sing it. I think that’s important to how strong the story is.”
Though Aycock and Setzler have been working in theatre together for more than a decade, the creative drive to support and push each other into greater territory doesn’t wane. Aycock has directed Setzler in other shows.
“I keep learning how invested she is,” he praises. “She really focuses well and zeroes in on the emotion and character.”
“What I love about Cathy is finding the times where you realize why Jamie fell in love with her,” Setzler explains—“finding moments that make Cathy smile or show her confidence in the midst of all her self-doubt.”
Setzler and Aycock switch off directing each other in “The Last Five Years.” The two-person show felt like an easier one for them to produce together. Though they’ve done staged readings, as seen in Big Dawg’s “Love Letters,” and TheatreNOW’s “Diary of Adam and Eve,” the two triple threats (actors, singers, dancers) producing a two-person show in which they carry all the weight from behind the scenes to onstage is a different beast.
“But I know [Jason’s] style really well,” Setzler tells. “He is confident, reliable, smart, and creative always.”
Aycock’s Jamie is a man on the verge of making it big as an author, while Cathy is a struggling actress trying to make her dreams come to fruition.
“It’s a really moving, loving look at a relationship,” Setzler says, “what goes right, what goes wrong.”
Aycock and Setzler never have seen “The Last Five Years” live, despite having watched the movie version with Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan. Though, during one of their New York trips (they traveled most recently to see “Hamilton”), they went to the library to watch the Off-Broadway recording.
“It was pretty elaborately staged, so it was much different than I expected,” Setzler tells. “What I love about our version is it’s simple. The music is so good on its own and tells such a compelling story, it doesn’t need much help.”
Chiaki Ito will be directing music of “The Last Five Years” with a six-piece band, as she leads the way on keys. Christopher Marcellus (bass), Jared Cline (guitar), Zachary Boyce (cello 1), Min Jeong Kim (cello 2), and Brett Bentrup (violin) flesh out the band. She calls it a musical marathon since there aren’t scene breaks. To top it off, it contains some of the most difficult music Ito has taken on during her very long-standing tenure on the theatre scene. Its complexity mirrors that of a relationship that starts out amazingly but does see an unfortunate end.
“It speaks to everyone who’s ever been in a relationship and has experienced the slow demise of what you once thought was the best thing ever,” she says. “The music is rhythmically difficult. There are some places where everyone has different rhythms to play, and they all have to fit together like pieces of a puzzle. It’s the type of music you can’t really fudge. For example, if you’re playing something like ‘RENT,’ you can play it off of chord symbols and improvise rhythms. Jason Robert Brown wrote pretty specific rhythms that correspond to the feel of the song. It’s very much like Stephen Sondheim but with a more contemporary jazz/rock style.”
Aycock finds “The Schmuel Song” one of the more difficult pieces. It’s Jamie’s longest song and quite wordy. “Since it’s a musical, it’s not like I can paraphrase anything,” Aycock quips, “but it tells a story, and that’s been the easiest way to get all of those words in my brain.”
Aycock enjoys taking on the momentum of his character, but tapping into his darker side has been a bit more challenging. The emotion the show puts out is a lot to take in. “I’ve looked back at some former (unhappy) relationships I’ve been a part of and had to relive some dark moments,” he explains. “It’s tough to bring some of that back up.”
“There are spots in every song that can trip us up if we’re not completely focused,” Setzler adds. “But for me the hardest is the finale, ‘Goodbye Until Tomorrow/I Could Never Rescue You.’ I’ve yet to get through it without crying. So, yeah, not nailing it. Or maybe I am.”
The two have chosen an abstract design concept which moves across numerous locations over the five years of the relationship they’re portraying. Cole Marquis is designing lights, and costuming will remain from their own closets since it’s essentially a modern-day love story.
“Gary Ralph Smith is designing our set,” Setzler says. “It involves a lot of mirrors to symbolize reflection. Cathy and Jamie’s reflections of themselves, each other and their relationship.”