BWW Review: THE LAST FIVE YEARS Meets at a Crossroads
Last night I found myself at a crossroads. It was the Crossroads Mall in Omaha. Inside this nearly vacant structure is a tiny live theater tucked into the northeast corner. The Performing Artists Repertory Theatre (PART) showcased two of Omaha's favorite performers in Jason Robert Brown's THE LAST FIVE YEARS.
In this two-person production directed by Gordon P. Cantiello, Leanne Hill Carlson portrays Cathy Hiatt, a fresh-faced aspiring actress. John E. Jones is Jamie Wellerstein, her Jewish successful book-writing husband. Sung through, the story begins at both ends and meets at a crossroads before diverging and heading off in opposite directions. Carlson appears dressed in ordinary clothes with unstyled hair. Her hands shake as she fumbles a paper. She sniffles through her song. This woman is clearly hurting. This is Cathy's ending. Jones bounds in with a brilliant smile on his face. He's just met the Shiksa goddess of his dreams which is sure to break his mother's heart. This is Jamie's beginning.
Time is everything. This is a story that covers five years of a passionate relationship. Jamie sings that he's been waiting for someone like Cathy, but later feels things are moving too fast. Cathy says Jamie spends no time with her, in fact he can't even stay with her on her birthday. "I thought we had a little time," she sings. Finding their relationship in trouble, Jamie begs Cathy to spend the next ten minutes with him. He excuses his perpetual lateness by insisting that time is beyond his control. He swears he will "be there soon," but Cathy finds it exquisite torture to wait. Their timelines are never going to mesh except for that one moment when they meet at a crossroads.
Because this is a complicated story told through the perspectives of two people, you need the right people. Carlson and Jones are those two. Both have strong melodious voices and fine acting skills. Carlson displays an impressive range of emotions from utter despair to hilarity. She is particularly moving in "See I'm Smiling." Her greatest moment, though, is "Climbing Uphill," where she switches back and forth from the auditioning Cathy to the inner Cathy who is agonizing over her performance and acceptability. Carlson is brilliant in this piece!
Jones is that guy that gets stuck under your skin. In rich voice Jones sings about needing just one little corner in the back of his heart and Cathy sending in battalions to blow it apart. He wins hearts with his smiling exuberance in the pursuit of his love, and breaks hearts when he pushes her away in pursuit of his own happiness.
Jason Robert Brown's music is always something more than the expected. His lyrics are clever and his music is inspired and fresh. Musical director Doran Schmidt adeptly leads violinist Rose Rydberg and cellist Mindy Dauner, at times conducting with one hand and playing piano with the other. The three-piece ensemble is simple, but beautiful.
The set is minimal. There's the piano set with a rose, a shimmering shawl, a bottle of wine. There are a couple of chairs. A desk. At times Jones and Carlson perform from the sides of the theater which is set up more like a small cafe. They aren't confined to the traditional stage. This is not a traditional musical. The simple stage, the musicians, the ordinary street clothes, the sound and lighting---all are doubly effective because they do not detract from the love story. You are free to get lost in the telling by these two talented performers. And I don't think you can do better than that.
Photo Credit: Gordon Cantiello