One of the best things about live theater is being able to see favorite plays and musicals revived with new actors tackling iconic roles, new directors putting their stamp on familiar material, and new design teams giving old shows new looks. This rarely happens in movies and TV, where the word remake is often synonymous with “Sacrilege!” 

Not so in the theater, where I personally have had the joy to see 10 different productions of Into The Woods, 6 each of Pippin and The Full Monty, and 5 of You Can’t Take It With You, 42nd Street, and Man Of La Mancha. Coming up soon will be my 5th Cabaret, my 5th and 6th Sweeney Todd, and my 4th Altar Boyz.  I can’t wait!

Right now, there are two different productions of what is turning out to be probably my all-time favorite musical, Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years, and seeing # 9 last night was every bit as thrilling and powerful an experience as my initial discovery of the show.

For the uninitiated, The Last Five Years is Brown’s semi-autobiographical look back at his first marriage, from initial meeting to the goodbye letter that ended all the promise of Cathy and Jamie’s first hello.

Goodbye letter and first hello take place almost simultaneously in TL5Y, with aspiring musical theater performer Catherine Hyatt’s story told from breakup to first date and bestselling first novelist Jamie Wellerstein’s in actual chronological order. Only at the halfway point do the two 20something characters’ onstage lives coincide; only then do they sing to each other, look each other in the eyes, touch.

In the right hands, this is potent, powerful stuff.

Three people are absolutely necessary for The Last Five Years to work its magic spell—a young woman and a young man able to sing as superbly as they can act, and a pianist to play Jason Robert Brown’s exquisite melodies.  Of course it helps to have a director with a vision, a design team to give the production a “look,” and an extra instrument or two if budget permits, but if you’ve got your Cathy and your Jamie and someone talented at the piano, chances are, The Last Five Years will cast its spell over you.

In Tara Pitt and Tim Woods, Hunger Artists’ new Orange County production of TL5Y scores with an absolutely splendid pair of actor/singers who bring Cathy and Jamie to funny, real, dramatic, emotional life.  Music director Kevin Tison on keyboard plays the nearly 90-minute score without a glitch.  Director Susan Marx lets the music and the performances speak for themselves.  The result is a Last Five Years which proves both a fine introduction for newbies and a moving return visit for longtime aficionados.

Tison slows the tempos of some of the musical numbers, the better to allow the meaning and emotions of Brown’s words to sink in, beginning with Cathy’s heartbreaking (and heartbroken) “Still Hurting,” which Pitt acts and sings to perfection in her crystal clear, pop-tinged belt of a soprano. Segueway to Jamie’s joyous love-at-first sight “Shiksa Goddess,” some if it sung as a cell phone call to Cathy, and then on to Cathy’s “See I’m Smiling,” sung on a pier by a river in Ohio. Jamie has come for a visit, leading Cathy to believe that there is still hope for their marriage—“I mean, you made it to Ohio! Who knows where else we can go,” only to have Jamie announce that he’s heading back to New York for “another party with the same twenty jerks you already know.” Cathy’s rapidly mounting anger is interrupted by several of Jamie’s phone conversations four years earlier, before the publication of his best-selling novel, planting the seeds of his later self-absorption.  The juxtapositioning of Cathy’s pain and Jamie’s joy, both emotions beautifully acted by Pitt and Woods, is powerful indeed.

“I’ve got a singular impression things are moving too fast” sings Jamie as everything in his life begins to take off. He’s found a woman he loves and an agent who loves him. He’s written a book and Oprah Winfrey’s read it. (A nice lyric twitch: Oprah’s name gets a laugh where the usual [Alfred A Knopf editor] Sonny Mehta’s doesn’t.)  When Woods sings, “I’m riding hot as a rocket blast. I just expected it ten years later,” the joyous surprise written on his face is palpable. Pitt shows similar acting chops when, in “A Part Of That,” she sings, “And then he smiles. His eyes light up and how can I complain?” and her own eyes light up to match.

“The Schmuel Song,” a “new and unpublished little Christmas story” which Jamie sings to Cathy on their second Christmas together is a Jamie showcase, and Woods’ rendition is one of the best, his elderly stooped-over Schmuel (tailor of Klimovich) sung in a perfect Russian-Jewish accent and earning justly deserved cheers.

“A Summer In Ohio” has Cathy “singing” a letter to Jamie about Summer Stock from hell, forty miles east of Cincinnati “with a gay midget named Karl, playing Tevya and Porgy.”  Pitt captures every bit of the humor and irony of Cathy’s plight, and hits flawless high notes to boot.

There is no more powerful scene in The Last Five Years than the one surrounding Cathy and Jamie’s wedding. It begins with a pre-nuptials Jamie in seated in Central Park, pointing out (to an invisible Cathy) the apartments of the rich and famous, then moves on to Jamie’s proposal. “Will you share your life with me for the next ten minutes? We can handle that.  And if we make it till then, can I ask you again for another ten?”  Has there ever been a more beautiful (and realistic) wedding proposal?  Cathy enters in white, singing (to my very favorite of Brown’s melodies), “I’m not always on time. Please don’t expect that from me. I will be late but if you can just wait, I will make it eventually.” There are so many hopes, so many dreams on that day.  

Director Marx has up till this point kept Cathy and Jamie apart, one exiting just as the other enters. When for the first time, Pitt and Woods are standing side by side, spots on both, the moment is stunning, and when they turn to face each other, to laugh, to kiss, to dance, neither one able to keep their hands off the other, I defy anyone with a heart not to be moved.

The rest of the show takes Jamie farther and farther from Cathy. As the New York publishing world’s latest “grand fromage,” Jamie faces the temptations of being a young, good-looking hot young writer with young, good-looking hot young women virtually prostrating themselves in front of him, all the while trying to reassure himself and Cathy that “I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine!  It’s not a problem. It’s just a challenge. It’s a challenge to resist temptation.” Later, in “If I Didn’t Believe in You,” Jamie reveals his sadness and disappointment at seeing Cathy’s failure to make it to the big time and his frustrations as well. “I will not fail so you can be comfortable, Cathy.” he sings. “I will not lose because you can’t win.” (Here again, musical director Tison slows the pace, allowing Brown’s lyrics, beautifully sung and acted by Woods, to sink in.)  Then comes Jamie’s betrayal (“Nobody Needs To Know”), which puts the final nails in the coffin that once was their marriage.

Meanwhile, in Cathy’s reverse-chronology world, we get an amusing glimpse at the hellish audition process actors undergo on a daily basis.  Pitt first performs “When You Come Home To Me” as it is meant to be sung (simply and perfectly), then during an actual audition, with the accompanist playing either too fast or too loud, as all the while Cathy wonders “Why did I pick these shoes?  Why did I pick this song?  Why did I pick this career? Why does this pianist hate me?”  “I Can Do Better Than That” shows us Cathy at the start of her relationship with Jamie, and again, this is a Last Five Years production that really lets us hear the words. “I will never go back, ever look back anymore,” sings a Cathy with nothing but hope for the future.

The Last Five Years ends as it begins, with a goodbye letter from Jamie, but now it is Cathy whose face glows with joy. As the audience’s eyes keep moving back and forth between Pitt’s radiant “Goodbye Until Tomorrow” on one side of the stage and Woods’ stricken “I Could Never Rescue You” on the other, The Last Five Years reaches its bittersweet wallop of a fade out.

Tara Pitt is Orange County’s unsung treasure, a tall stunning redhead with as sensational a voice as you’re likely to hear and acting chops to match.  (Her resume contains about as many straight plays as musicals, and it shows.) If she remains as yet undiscovered by L.A. directors, it is the OC’s gain.  Her performance here is as close to perfect as they get.

Tim Woods is an OC boy who went off to study in the Big Apple, did some shows in New York, and has returned home to what will, with any justice, be a highly successful West Coast career.  With great stage presence and an easy-going sexy charm, plus acting talent and voice to match Pitt’s (which is saying a lot), you can expect to hear much more from Woods.

Director Marx keeps the attention firmly focused on Cathy and Jamie’s story, on making it real, believable, and spontaneous. There are times that I wished for ways in which Cathy and Jamie could occasionally share stage time, albeit in different points in their lives, and at least once, in “If I Didn’t Believe In You,” almost an entire song is performed with an actor’s back facing one side of the audience.  Still, this is first-rate work.

Marx also designed the simple but effective all black set (a large rectangular block serving as a table, bed, and platform; a long low narrow one which becomes a pier, a doorstep, etc.; and a pair of chairs.) Working with Ted Leib, Marx’s lighting is effectively designed as well. Unbilled costumes are a just-right fit for each scene.  Projections inside an upstage frame situate each scene, whether in a 50s style Ohio motel or on a Midwest Interstate or backed by a snowy New York Christmas scene.  (Graphic arts/photography by Darcy Hogan) I love that the book jacket of Jamie’s novel has the title Shiksa Goddess!

Ultimately, who is to blame for the end of the Wellerstein’s five-year relationship? Is it Jamie, selfish, self-centered, and adulterous, or is it Cathy, needy, envious, frustrated?  In The Last Five Years, it is both and neither, and that is the beauty of Brown’s brilliantly conceived and executed story.

Hunger Artists’ production is both a fine introduction and a satisfying revisit to this exquisite gem of a show.

Hunger Artists Theatre Company, 699-A South State College Blvd., Fullerton.

–Steven Stanley 
June 5, 2009
                                                                   Photos: Darcy Hogan

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