Sunday, April 28, 2013

He Sang, She Sang: "The Last Five Years" at the Signature Theatre, Arlington, Va.

Review by Mark A. Newman

Has it really been a decade since I saw the original version of The Last Five Years, the two-person Jason Robert Brown tuner, off-Broadway? Yeah, it has. Oddly, as much acclaim as it garnered “back in the day,” the show didn’t stay around that long. Its original stars have gone off to quite acclaimed careers – Norbert Leo Butz has two Tonys on his mantle and Tony-nominated Sherie Renee Scott is a household name (in certain Broadway-loving households, that is).

The show itself – seemingly a master class of audition tunes for both males and females – has gained quite a reputation in the intervening decade. Make no mistake, the songs are fantastic but maybe, just maybe the show’s chief conceit – telling the same story from different perspectives and timeframes – may also be its biggest flaw. For anyone who’s never heard of the show, it goes like this: Jamie and Cathy are a couple. They’ve been together five years (hence the title). He’s a successful author; she’s a not-so-successful actress. But here’s where it gets complicated: Cathy sings her songs from the end of the relationship to the beginning while Jamie sings his songs chronologically from the beginning of the relationship to the ending.

The only time the two doomed lovebirds are together are smack dab in the middle when Jamie proposes in Central Park.

I am very familiar this structure, have had the original cast album since it was released, and have now seen the show performed live three times. And STILL I find myself getting confused as the musical unwinds. Maybe that’s just my muddled brain, which is likely. Maybe it’s the author’s dependence on the audience’s memory that is the real problem. For example, after the proposal a reference to a trip to Ohio in the second half confused me because it seemed like Cathy took two trips to Ohio for god-awful summer stock productions. But when she wrote Jamie a letter, things seemed to be okay. Was she in Ohio then? The second trip to Ohio (the first one in the musical) Jamie was obviously being sung to by Cathy and things were not going well at all. 

The storytelling doesn’t quite make it clear where the relationship hit the skids and each other’s reaction to it because what happens in “act one” is often not referenced until “act two.” The so-called act one gun is Kathy’s opening number “Still Hurting” immediately followed by Jamie’s “Shiksa Goddess.” While she’s lamenting the courtship’s downward spiral, he’s rejoicing over finding a non-Jewish girl to love. This juxtaposition either sets the tone for the audience or royally confuses them. Probably a little of both.

As Jamie, James Gardiner is excellent. In his first number – the aforementioned “Shiksa Goddess” – he tried to shove in every over-the-top bit of comic timing he cab and it borders on being too much but as the show goes on and you get to know Jamie, you realize he would totally do that. Unfortunately you don’t have that knowledge right away so you think he’s just a very overly enthusiastic Jewish guy. And you’d be right. 

The yin to Gardiner’s Jamie’s yang is Erin Weaver, recently nominated for a Helen Hayes award for her remarkable turn in Signature’s production of Xanadu last season. Even though she’s not on skates this time, she still keeps on rolling along as we see Cathy evolve (or devolve) from lonely, sad, and newly single to downright giddy when she meets the man of her dreams as the final curtain falls.

Due to the show’s structure, it’s sometimes hard to tell exactly where the relationship went wrong. Suffice to say that due to his burgeoning literary success Jamie became impossible to deal with, at least according to Kathy. However, it also seemed like Cathy could not be happy for Jamie because of her own lack of success as an actress. Okay, this is a given. But where the relationship really hit the skids is hard to tell. What was the breaking point, the proverbial last straw? We don’t really know.

Then again, it’s not all that important. What is important is that this delicate, two-person show walks a fine line between the two witnesses to a relationships decline while never pointing a finger of blame at either. That’s the audience’s job. Due to the fairly typical circumstances of this bad romance, most people will have strong feelings of empathy over the course of this 90-minute show.

As with a low-key chamber musical such as The Last Five Years, the show’s design aspects should be equally subdued. The lighting by Andrew F. Griffin is striking in its simplicity as is the off-the-rack costumes by Kathleen Geldard. The sound design by Matt Rowe perfectly captures the show’s intimacy to the point it felt as though the audience was eavesdropping on a relationship that was alternately crumbling and growing from song to song. Daniel Conway’s delicate scenic design was capped by the flourish that rose from Jamie’s writing desk and into the rafters. A twisted sculpture of clocks and manuscript pages tenuously tangled, this set piece was always the visual center of attention, signaling how easily time slips out of our hands. 

It should be noted that the show comprises some of the smartest and well written theatre songs of the last 20 years. Just to hear the songs performed live is reason enough to get yourself to Arlington, Virginia to witness one of the best crafted shows Signature has put on the last year or so. The direction by Aaron Posner is sublime, shifting the focus from him to her and back effortlessly in a production that is as eloquently crafted as a ballet.

We may never figure out if we should blame Jamie’s self-destructiveness or Cathy’s insecurities that doom this Manhattan love story, but you only have yourself to blame for missing this jewel of a musical shining ever so brightly in Northern Virginia.
Music and lyrics: Jason Robert Brown
Direction: Aaron Posner
Lighting: Andrew F. Griffin
Costumes: Kathleen Geldard
Sound: Matt Rowe
Scenic design: Daniel Conway
Music direction: William Yannesh
Music supervision: Jon Kalbfleisch

Featuring: James Gardiner (Jamie) and Erin Weaver (Cathy).

Tickets: Ticketmaster (703) 573-SEAT (7328)
Signature Theatre • 4200 Campbell Avenue • Arlington, VA 22206

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