Star-crossed Jamie Wellerstein and Cathy Hiatt fall in and out of love once more in McCoy Rigby Entertainment’s exceptional revival of Jason Robert Brown’s exquisite The Last Five Years, now thrilling audiences at the La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts.
The almost entirely sung-through 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, The Last Five Years recounts up-and-coming novelist Jamie’s story in chronological order, from his joy at finally meeting the “Shiksa Goddess” of his dreams towards a final, painful realization that no matter how hard he tried, “I Could Never Rescue You.”
Aspiring actress-singer Catherine Hiatt’s last five years, on the other hand, move backwards in time, her songs alternating with Jamie’s, from “Still Hurting” (from their impending divorce) to “Goodbye Until Tomorrow,” sung just after the couple’s first date, when there were still countless tomorrows awaiting them.
The result: side-by-side sadness and joy and an ending that delivers an emotional wallop, and with director Nick DeGruccio masterfully in charge, this Last Five Years packs particular punch.
For one thing, DeGruccio finds ways to have both characters onstage as often as possible while still keeping each in his or her own time zone.
When Cathy brags about Jamie’s literary success, we see him giving an earlier book-store reading of his soon-to-be bestseller. When Jamie treats Cathy to his Christmas/Hanukkah “Schmuel Song,” we glimpse her from the back, wrapped in a red-and-green blanket that she then spreads on the ground for a picnic the couple shared one “Summer In Ohio.”
For another, DeGruccio has made sure to cast this Last Five Years with leads who bring out colors and shadings that might otherwise get ignored, hand-picked not merely for vocal chops but for audition choices that add surprise nuances to both dialog and songs.
Archer’s Jamie is not merely a talented writer smitten with the “Shiksa Goddess” of his dreams, he’s impishly playful (and perhaps the first Jamie ever to moon), irresistibly romantic, callously thoughtless, devilishly handsome, and sexy as all get-out. (Archer also reads an excerpt from Jamie’s novel more vividly and expressively than I’ve ever heard.)
Storrs matches her costar every step of the way, bringing not just pain but justified rage to the show-opening “Still Hurting” and a wry, sly sense of humor to “A Summer In Ohio,” and making Cathy’s hilariously botched auditions a particular treat.
As he did back in 2006 at the Pasadena Playhouse, DeGruccio conceives The Last Five Years as a collection of musical snapshots, stage technology developed over the past decade allowing for an even fuller realization of this vision.
Thanks to Keith Skretch’s endlessly imaginative video design, photos of Jamie and Cathy’s relationship keep popping up in various sizes and configurations on the burnished metallic squares that back up Stephen Gifford’s terrific scenic design, and when Jamie drops a box of snapshot in a climactic moment, expect to have your breath taken away. (And speaking of breathtaking, Jamie and Cathy’s rowboating across Central Park has perhaps never been so exquisite.)
Steven Young’s lighting adds to the production’s emotional impact while never drowning out Skretch’s projections, Thomas G. Marquez costumes his two leads in a variety of just-right outfits (Jamie’s Christmas onesie is especially delish), Terry Hanrahan scores high marks for her properties design, and sound designer Josh Bessom provides a finely-tuned mix of vocals and instrumentals.
As for Brown’s dozen gorgeously written, impeccably lyricized songs, with musical director Brent Crayon conducting and playing keyboards alongside musicians Dana Decker, Rhea Fowler, Jack Majdecki, Ginger Murphy, and Hillary Smith, this is one Last Five Years that gives Brown’s creations the full chamber-orchestral backup they so richly deserve.
Casting is by Julia Flores. Jill Gold is stage manager and Lisa Palmire is assistant stage manager. Michael Roman is technical director.
I’ve been in love with the Last Five Years since first discovering it on CD over a dozen years ago, and since its Los Angeles Premiere back in 2004, I’ve now seen it in fourteen distinct productions. With Nick DeGruccio masterfully in charge and Devin Archer and Natalie Storrs bringing Jamie and Cathy to unforgettable life, this one is in a class all by itself.
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Boulevard, La Mirada.
January 21, 2017
Photos: Michael Lamont