One of the most exciting 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.

I first saw Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years nearly seven years ago in its West Coast Premiere and since then have had the privilege of seeing this exquisite chamber musical on numerous repeat occasions, last night’s production at the Covina Center For The Performing Arts making it an even dozen TL5Ys.  I’m happy to report that this is one of the most beautifully performed of all.

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

Several elements must be in place for The Last Five Years to work its magic spell—a pair of performers who can act as superbly as they sing (and vice versa), a director who understands the material, and gifted musicians to play Jason Robert Brown’s gorgeous melodies. In this Inland Valley Repertory Theatre production, each of these elements is present—and then some.

Real life spouses Allen Everman and Cassandra Murphy are about as perfect a Jamie and Cathy as any TL5Y fan could ask for. Music director Ronda Rubio on keyboard conducts an excellent six-piece orchestra, only the second time I’ve had the good fortune to hear Brown’s full original orchestrations. (Most productions have at most three pieces.) Director Hope Kaufman savvily 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.

Rubio and her fellow musicians provide a rich, resonant backdrop to Cathy’s heartbreaking (and heartbroken) opening number “Still Hurting,” which a stunning Murphy acts and sings to perfection in the voice SoCal theatergoers have enjoyed in All Shook Up (for which she has received two Scenie Awards), Miss Saigon, and The All Night Strut! Next up is Jamie’s joyous love-at-first sight “Shiksa Goddess,” which Everman nails in a just-right combination of goofy charm, humor and leading man good looks. Then it’s 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 juxtaposition of Cathy’s pain and Jamie’s joy, both emotions powerfully acted by Everman and Murphy, is heady stuff 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 [Alfred A Knopf editor] Sonny Mehta has read it. When Everman sings, “I’m riding hot as a rocket blast. I just expected it ten years later,” the combination of joy and surprise on his face is palpable. Murphy 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 Everman’s rendition captures all of its delights, his elderly stooped-over Schmuel (tailor of Klimovich) sung in a perfect Russian-Jewish accent and earning cheers, the gift he presents Cathy inspiring more than a few tears.

“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.” Murphy 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 Kaufman has up till this point kept Cathy and Jamie apart, mostly on opposite sides of the stage with one exiting just as the other enters. When for the first time, Everman and Murphy find themselves standing face to face, the moment is stunning, and when they embrace and then begin their wedding waltz, only the hardest of hearts will fail 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.” Everman’s may well be the best rendition I’ve heard of this song, one which makes it perfectly clear how hard Jamie has tried to keep their marriage together, and makes Jamie’s betrayal (“Nobody Needs To Know”) if not excusable, then at least understandable.

Meanwhile, in Cathy’s reverse-chronology world, we get an amusing glimpse at the hellish audition process actors undergo on a daily basis. Murphy 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. “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 Murphy’s radiant “Goodbye Until Tomorrow” on one side of the stage and Everman’s stricken “I Could Never Rescue You” on the other, The Last Five Years reaches its bittersweet wallop of a fade out, its star-crossed couple regarding each other from opposite sides of the proscenium in two very different time zones and with two very different looks in their eyes.

IVRT and CCPA could not have found a better Jamie and Cathy than Everman and Murphy, and though Kaufman’s direction may be less “inventive” than a few others I’ve seen, she adds numerous effective personal touches, at the same time insuring that her leading man and lady invest as much into their acting (with both performances ending up supremely real and heartfelt) as they do into their vocal renditions of Brown’s songs.

The set, by Candlelight Pavilion, is simple but classy as befits the gorgeously restored and refurbished Covina Center. Daniel Moorefield’s lighting design is rich and imaginative and Brandon Hudrlik provides crystal clear sound design.  Bobby Collins is production manager, Angelo Collado tecnical director, and Kathryn Inda stage manager.  Donna Marie Minano and Frank Minano are IVRT founders, and she is general manager, he producing artistic director.

Audience members may find themselves debating just 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.

Inland Valley Repertory Theatre gives us a terrific The Last Five Years, one which will serve as either a fine introduction or (in the case of this reviewer) a highly satisfying return visit to this exquisite gem of a show.

Covina Center for the Performing Arts, 104 North Citrus Avenue, Covina.
–Steven Stanley
September 16, 2011

Photos: Russek Photography

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