Since discovering Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years about four years ago, I have rarely missed a chance to see it performed. Whether in a large professional theater (The Pasadena Playhouse) or an intimate space (The Chance) or even in concert form (Brown himself opposite Julia Murney), TL5Y is a musical which never fails to move me.  Tonight’s superbly directed and terrifically performed UCLA production was no exception.

The Last Five Years is JRB’s semi-autobiographical look back at his first marriage, from initial meeting to the goodbye letter that ended all the promise of their first hello.

Goodbye letter and first hello take place almost simultaneously in TL5Y, which tells heroine Catherine’s story from breakup to first date and hero Jamie’s in chronological order. Only at the halfway point do the two characters’ onstage lives coincide; only then do they sing to each other, look each other in the eyes, touch.

The UCLA production stars Southern California musical theater’s “Next Big Thing” Doug Carpenter opposite a radiant new talent, Toni Smith* and is directed by a young man of great imagination and promise named James Darrah.

TL5Y is both a performer’s musical and a director’s. It belongs to its performers because it’s either one or the other singing Brown’s songs, and to the director because the book of this almost sung-through musical is virtually stage direction- free.  Carpenter and Smith’s performances easily stand comparison with the best of those I’ve seen so far, and Darrah’s direction rivals that of the Pasadena Playhouse’s Nick DeGruccio and The Chance’s Oanh Nguyen, both directorial geniuses.

Since I first saw him in Rodgers’ And Hammerstein’s Cinderella, Carpenter’s work just keeps getting better and better.  Following a pair of star turns in Fullerton (a fine Tony in West Side Story and an even better Curly in Oklahoma!), the model-handsome Carpenter does his best, loosest, funniest work yet as first-novelist sensation Jamie Wellerstein, stretching himself vocally by moving from the operatically trained baritone displayed in his previous roles to a convincing pop belt and showing genuine comic gifts as the slightly goofy Jamie (especially in “Shiksa Goddess” and “The Schmuel Song.”)

The gorgeous Smith is yet another reason to be confident about the future of musical theater, a fine pop singer and an even finer actress and comedienne. From the heartbreaking opening numbers “Still Hurting” and “See I’m Smiling” to a much funnier than usual “A Summer In Ohio” (you really feel the poor girl’s pain at having to share the stage with “a gay midget named Karl, playing Tevia and Porgy”) and “Climbing Uphill” (singing about the audition from hell in competition with “two hundred girls who are younger and thinner than me who have already been to the gym”).

Again and again, Darrah reveals himself to be an inspired director.  Unlike most productions, this Jamie and Cathy are always visible to us.  The huge stage at MacGowan Hall is bare save for set pieces and piano, so the two have literally nowhere else to go.  Upstage clothes racks allow the actors to make costume changes, but often we see both characters together, and though they are at different time periods of their lives, Darrah draws parallels, as when Cathy is picking up from the floor the headshots she has scattered after yet another bad audition and Jamie (years later in their relationship) sings “If I Didn’t Believe In You,” about his lost battle to help Cathy triumph over her lack of self-confidence. The wrapped present Jamie is going to give Cathy on a Christmas morning  before their marriage is opened several songs later at a similar point in time in Cathy’s story, turning out to be the dress she then puts on for her audition.  

“The Next Ten Minutes,” the one song which Jamie and Cathy sing together, is played out not in formal attire on their wedding day, but in white undergarments on their honeymoon night, under Cameron Mock’s striking white lighting.  In another Darrah switch, we see rather than imagine the “other woman” Jamie is seeing behind Cathy’s back, and though it is a bit jarring to have a third performer on stage, the reality of Jamie’s betrayal is made all the more real.

Carpenter and Smith perform under the flawless musical direction of Jeremy Mann, with wunderkind Brett Ryback on piano and Max Mueller on cello doing equally impeccable work. Marika Stephens’ scenic design has the actors removing sheets from dusty abandoned furniture scattered across the stage. Darrah and Sarah Schuessler have designed a great array of costumes. Ross Goldman’s sound design amplifies but never distorts the actors’ voices, and Mock’s lighting design is as imaginative as is the production as a whole.

The only shame is that as I write this following Friday’s performance, only two more remain tomorrow.  With a production as fine as this one, I only wish I could see them both.

*Jessica Armstrong performs the role in two of the scheduled four performances

–Steven Stanley
December 5, 2008

The Little Theatre at UCLA.  December 4-6.

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