BWW Reviews: Take Two for Street Theatre Company's Impressive Staging of THE LAST FIVE YEARS

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When I first met Cori Najarian and Tyson Laemmel, it had nothing to do with the theater. Rather, they were shopping for clothes that Tyson would wear for their wedding and I helped them navigate the sales floor in the department store at which I sold men's tailored clothing. Our connection was immediate and definite: It seems you can't meet the couple without being instantly caught up in their charmed spell.

"So what's this got to do with anything?" you're probably wondering. Well, to be frank, the affection that you are almost certain to feel for the Laemmels when you meet them usually transfers to the Nashville stage, where they are definite audience favorites. And that relationship you have with them-however tenuous it might really be-helps to underscore their performances in The Last Five Years, now onstage at Street Theatre Company through May 27, making the impact of Jason Robert Brown's musical and the characters played by Cori and Tyson more deeply felt and somehow more eloquently expressed.

Playing a young married couple-Cathy Hyatt is a struggling young actress, her husband Jamie Wellerstein a successful new author, their conflicting artistic sensibilities and aspirations providing the conflict that takes its toll on their relationship-sounds like perfect casting for the Laemmels, and their idyllic offstage pairing clearly brings deeper resonance to their roles, making the impact of the show all the more emotional and heartfelt in the process.

Directed by Lauren Shouse, Street Theatre Company's production is unique in its casting: Cori and Tyson Laemmel play Cathy and Jamie for the final two weekends of the run, while Kacie Phillips and Ryan Greenawalt opened, to essentially unanimous and deserved acclaim, in the roles for the first two weekends. But here's an intriguing thought: How different would the show be if Cori Laemmel were paired with Ryan Greenawalt and Kacie Phillips played opposite Tyson Laemmel? It's staggering, isn't it?

While Brown's script remains the same, as does Andy Bleiler's gorgeously designed set, Steven Steele's evocative lighting, Lynda Cameron Bayer's lovely costumes and the superb accompaniment from the show's band under the musical direction of Rollie Mains, what you get with the two casts amounts to two different shows. Not only is there the change in the show's gravity given the personal relationship of the Laemmels, but the performance of the two casts-both of which deliver laudable portrayals-are vastly different, proving how organic the theatrical process really is.

The Last Five Years is a particular favorite of the theaterati-I bet there are a good many casting directors who'd be enormously rich if they had a dollar for every time they've heard "Climbing Uphill" at auditions-and the show's title alone can set off paroxysms of joy and delight among the theatrical set.

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That unbridled enthusiasm for the show isn't necessarily misdirected or misguided. Certainly, Brown has created a thoroughly entertaining piece of musical theater that seems somehow unique, primarily due to his storytelling abilities. Cathy's story is told in reverse chronological order (when first we meet her, she is grieving the end of the couple's five year relationship), while Jamie's unfolds in chronological order (at curtain, he is celebrating the first moments of literary success while in the beginnings of his romance with Cathy). Obviously, the story of Cathy and Jamie comes from somewhere in real time (The Last Five Years is based on the relationship oF Brown and his first wife, supposedly) and the author's frank honesty, sharp dialogue and memorable musical score combine to make the show the hit that it has become in the eleven years since it first premiered in Chicago.

And the critical acclaim that two weeks ago I heaped upon STC's production continues unabated: Never for a moment did I feel like I was seeing a rerun, a retread, a repeat-well, you get my drift-because the dynamics of the show seem different this time around. Shouse's direction proves to be even more elemental in the show's success, as she deftly guides her actors through the rollercoaster-like ride of emotions that are part of the show's genetic makeup.

To put it succinctly, Cori Laemmel acts the hell out of her role as Cathy and she can, with one single tear rolling down her beautiful face, pack an emotional wallop like nobody's business. Her onstage demeanor, which is not unlike her offstage personality, completely endears her to the audience and we feel the almost too natural ebb and flow of Cathy's emotional arc with a compelling intensity that is palpable. Tyson Laemmel is less successful in the early going, playing Jamie with more youthful petulance and bravado than is needed. Yet when his version of Jamie becomes older and more experienced, Tyson's portrayal morphs into something greater, something more genuine than we see initially.

Both Laemmels deliver their songs with great feeling, interpreting Brown's score with believability and near-heartbreaking realism, even if the music seems out of their vocal ranges. They meet the challenge of the music, however, with their dramatic performances that come from their shared trust, which makes the breakup of Cathy and Jamie almost too intimate. Audience members may feel uncomfortable due to the voyeurism that becomes more apparent through the casting of a real-life married couple in the roles of their fictional counterparts.

The Last Five Years. Written and composed by Jason Robert Brown. Directed by Lauren Shouse. Music direction by Rollie Mains. Presented by Street Theatre Company, Nashville. Go to www.streettheatrecompany.org for details, or call (615) 554-7414 for reservations. Through May 27.

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.


 
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