Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years is revived to powerful, affecting life at Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre thanks to the combined efforts of director Stephanie A. Coltrin, costars Ashley Fox Linton and Louis Pardo, musical director Brent Crayon, and perhaps most remarkably of all, of scenic, lighting, and projection designer Mike Billings.
There’s nothing particularly new about the love story composer-lyricist-librettist Brown has set out to tell. A man and a woman meet. They fall in love. They marry. They begin to have problems. They grow further and further apart. They separate and divorce.
Rather a depressing slice of life to be turned into a musical, right? After all, who wants to see a show that ends unhappily ever after?
Fortunately for audiences, Brown found a way to tell just such a story as it has never been told before in his semi-autobiographical tale of a 20something couple whose relationship fails to withstand the pressures of having one of them achieve professional success while the other’s career flounders.
Up-and-coming novelist Jamie Wellerstein’s story moves chronologically forward from his joy at finally meeting the “Shiksa Goddess” he’s been dreaming of towards a final, painful realization that no matter how hard he tried, “I Could Never Rescue You.”
Aspiring actress-singer Catherine Hiatt’s, on the other hand, moves back in time, her songs alternating with Jamie’s, from “Still Hurting” (from their impending breakup) all the way back to “Goodbye Until Tomorrow,” sung just after the couple’s first date, when there were still countless tomorrows awaiting them.
The result: Joy and sadness side-by-side and an ending that packs an emotional wallop.
Not only that, but writer-composer Brown tells Jamie and Cathy’s story almost entirely in song, with the exception of some one-sided phone calls and a sequence which has Jamie reading aloud from his novel.
Jamie’s forward-moving narrative starts out with a series of upbeat, up-tempo songs. “Shiksa Goddess” has him “waiting through Danica Schwartz and Erica Weiss and the Handelman twins and Heather Greenblatt, Annie Mincus, Karen Pincus and Lisa Katz and Stacy Rosen, Ellen Kaplan, Julie Silber and Janie Stein” on his way to meeting a “cute goyishe maid” called Cathy. “Moving Too Fast” is Jamie’s ode to the fast life of an up-and-coming writer who’s found “a woman I love” and (even better) “an agent who loves me.” “The Schmuel Song” is Jamie’s Christmas-Chanukah number, a tour-de-force moment which has the aspiring storyteller singing in the voice of a Russian-Jewish tailor named Schmuel. Later, as things between the couple begin to deteriorate, “If I Didn’t Believe In You” becomes Jamie’s last-ditch effort to convince Cathy he’s on her side and “Nobody Needs To Know” has him long past hope that he and Cathy can survive.
From Cathy’s point of view, emotions move in reverse from heartbreak and desolation to optimism and joy. “I’m Still Smiling” captures the emotions of a woman hoping against hope for her marriage to survive and railing against a man who won’t stay with his wife even “on her fucking birthday.” “I’m A Part Of That” is Cathy’s attempt to find some satisfaction in being the wife of a celebrity author. “A Summer In Ohio” has Cathy singing about doing summer stock “with a gay midget named Karl, playing Tevia and Porgy,” and a sequence has her auditioning with a lousy accompanist and a padded résumé. “I Can Do Better Than That” is Cathy’s vow that her budding relationship with Jamie will succeed where others before have failed.
Brown’s libretto works particularly well because, even though we have already spent the first half of the show seeing the end of Jamie-&-Cathy from Cathy’s point of view, it’s not till the second half that the reasons for their breakup become clear, adding to the dramatic suspense.
I’ve seen at least one The Last Five Years in which Cathy and Jamie both remain onstage together almost throughout, and Brown does himself occationally have Jamie and Cathy share the stage, albeit in different time zones. For instance, as Cathy finds herself near the end of their relationship, Jamie gets exciting news about one of his first as-yet unpublished stories. Earlier (later?), a naively optimistic Cathy goes on a couple of disastrous auditions even as Jamie edges towards ending things four years after their first meeting.
Director Coltrin opts to stick with Brown’s original concept of one onstage performer per song (production stills that show both together are a bit of a cheat), allowing actor and audience to fill in the missing scene partner, an approach which makes the couple’s sole shared song, sole physical contact, sole dance in each other’s arms all the more powerful.
The director’s most noteworthy innovation at the Rubicon is her use of still and live-action projections throughout, an approach that not only makes this The Last Five Years as visually interesting as TL5Ys get, but solves the musical’s greatest potential drawback: It can be a tad hard to follow with only lyrics to set the scene.
Billings’ gorgeous projections make it immediately clear that Cathy is sitting on a lakeside dock somewhere in Ohio in “See I’m Smiling,” that she and Jamie are on a drive through the countryside in “I Can Do Better Than That,” that she’s in a rehearsal room in “A Miracle Would Happen/When You Come Home to Me,” etc.
Projections add too to the songs’ dramatic impact, speeded-up shots of New York City life making Jamie’s “Moving Too Fast” all the more exhilerating, while Eastern European street scenes and forwards-&-backwards-moving clocks make his “The Schmuel Song” all the easier to follow.
Add to that Billings’ scenic design, which keeps Jamie and Cathy’s bedroom onstage at all times, with various other locales slid in and out (including a particularly effectively used Central Park rowboat) and this is quite possibly the easiest-to-follow TL5Y of the baker’s dozen I’ve now seen.
SoCal theatergoers know Linton and Pardo from their numerous starring roles on our musical stages. (I’ve reviewed Linton in 13 productions and Pardo in 18.) Both were brand new to director Coltrin when auditioning, however, and it is to the director’s credit that she saw right away what anyone familiar with their work already knew. Coltrin could not have made more pitch-perfect choices for either part.
I can’t help thinking that Linton is precisely the “Shiksa Goddess” Jason Robert Brown had in mind when he wrote Cathy back in 2001. Not only is she an ideal, blue-eyed-blonde physical fit for the role, she has the glorious soprano and the dramatic/comedic chops to rock the part as sensationally as it’s ever been rocked before.
As for Pardo, Coltin’s decision to go with a less “matinee-idol” Jamie than say the upcoming film adaptation’s Jeremy Jordan contributes greatly to the love story’s opposites-attract appeal. In addition, not only can Pardo’s pipes go from pop to rock and hit notes only canine audience members can likely hear, he is instantly likeable (a must for the easy-to-dislike Jamie to work) and a terrific comic actor to boot.
Few productions of The Last Five Years can afford all five musicians of Brown’s original orchestrations, making the contributions of musical director Brent Crayon on piano, Steve Carnelli on guitar, Rhea Fowler on violin, Adrian Rosen on bass, and Hillary Smith on cello every bit as noteworthy as those of director, designers, and stars.
Billings’ lighting is both stunning and subtle, Jonathan Burke’s sound design makes for a crystal-clear mix of vocals and instrumentals, and Andrea Molina’s costumes are particularly well chosen (Cathy’s waitress uniform, for example) as are T. Theresa Scarano’s properties and set dressing.
Additional kudos go out to assistant director Katharine Farmer, cinematographer-visual effects supervisor Jeff Billings, and assistant scenic, lighting, and projection designer Justin Petito. Jessie Vacciano is production stage manager, Christina M. Burck is production manager, and David King is technical director.
I saw a dozen productions of The Last Five Years between 2004 (the year of its L.A. premiere) and 2011, and I’d gladly see another dozen more, beginning with Number 13, a particularly lucky digit to start off 2015.
For TL5Y junkies like myself, a drive up to Ventura is a must.
As for those of you who have somehow over the past decade missed this most extraordinary of chamber musicals, now is the time to see it live onstage. Hey, with the movie coming out for Valentine’s Day, you can catch both of them this month.
It matters not whether you are a romantic or cynic where love is concerned. No matter your relationship orientation, you are sure to fall for the Rubicon Theatre Company’s production of The Last Five Years.
Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main Street, Ventura.
January 28, 2015
Photos: Jeanne Tanner