THE LAST FIVE YEARS – Stage Scene LA Review

THE LAST FIVE YEARS

The Last Five Years, Jason Robert Brown’s exquisite musical two-hander, showcases UCLA talent to stunning effect as part of Pacific Resident Theatre’s Sunday Concert Series in the company’s newly inaugurated intimate cabaret space.

The almost entirely sung-through tale of a 20something couple whose marriage fails to withstand the pressures of his rise to literary stardom and her failure to achieve success as an actress, The Last Five Years recounts Jamie and Cathy’s love story in the most innovative of ways.

When relating the couple’s relationship from Jamie’s point of view, Brown’s musical moves in chronological order, from the aspiring novelist’s 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, from discovering Jamie’s farewell note in “Still Hurting” to “Goodbye Until Tomorrow,” sung immediately 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 a bona fide emotional wallop.

Not only that, but because 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), audiences are treated almost nonstop to some of the most gorgeous music Jason Robert Brown has ever written.

The Last Five Years is also that rarity among chamber musicals, one that can succeed equally as a tech-heavy, high-budget, fully-orchestrated big-stage production or with nothing but a chair, an end table, and a piano as is the case at PRT.

Working to director Calvin Brady’s distinct advantage is the Concert Series stage’s double-decker configuration, a wooden staircase leading from a downstairs playing area to a second-floor walkway and door.

Brady takes ingenious advantage of both levels in the show-opening “I’m Still Hurting” that has Cathy downstairs discovering Jamie’s goodbye letter and Jamie upstairs exiting her apartment after a magical first date, a physical juxtaposition that gets reversed to striking effect in the show-closing “Goodbye Until Tomorrow/I Could Never Rescue You.”

The same upstairs walkway later becomes the pier on which Cathy sits, legs dangling, in “See I’m Smiling,” and later, in “I Can Do Better Than That,” the car where she sits with an unseen Jamie by her side.

Turning on some holiday lights and plopping a mini-Christmas tree on the piano is all the scene-setting that’s needed for Jamie to launch into a delightful, touching “The Schmuel Song,” and Jamie’s holiday gift to his newlywed bride proves an inspired choice.

Though Brady opts to have Jamie and Cathy’s love story unfold with only one of them on stage at any given time, it’s never less than clear when either of them is alone or in conversation with an unseen scene partner.

In addition, since Brady has deliberately kept one or the other offstage save scripted exceptions, the couple’s wedding day unfolds quite breathtakingly indeed in “The Next Ten Minutes,” eye contact postponed until the exact moment the couple’s crisscrossing zones have finally met and they gaze into each other’s eyes at long last.

Still, none of Brady’s directorial choices would work nearly as well without just the right Jamie and Cathy, and in UCLA TFT’s Department of Theater graduating seniors Timothy Hoffmann and Nicolette Norgaard, Class Of 2018’s Brady has found a pair of singers whose acting talents match their considerable vocal chops.

From the moment Hoffmann launches into “Shiksa Goddess,” it’s clear that the lanky, charismatic leading man will be giving Jamie the goofy humor that’s part of his charm, and later, when Jamie realizes to what extent his celebrity has made Cathy painfully aware of her mostly failed musical theater career, Hoffmann makes “If I Didn’t Believe In You” the heartfelt heartbreaker it is meant to be.

With a winsome beauty and radiance guaranteed to turn any semi-nerdy Jewish boy’s head (providing he’s got a thing for Shiksa goddesses), Norgaard tears into “Still Hurting” with a palpable ache in her voice, takes “See I’m Smiling” from joy and wonder to frustration and rage, and slips in a delicious bit of legit soprano to the end of “When You Come Home To Me.”

Eric Kong provides letter-perfect piano accompaniment throughout, and Jeremy Mann, director of singing for the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television’s Ray Bolger Musical Theater Program, scores equally for his expert vocal direction.  Riva Brody is assistant director.

A production well worth extending beyond its brief three-performance run*, PRT’s The Last Five Years does Jason Robert Brown, Bruin talent, and Pacific Resident Theatre proud.

*Note: The Last Five years has been extended!

Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd, Venice. Through June 9. Sunday June 2 at 7:30, Wednesday June 5 at 7:30, Thursday June 6 at 7:30, Friday June 7 at 7:30, and Sunday June 9 at 3:00.
www.PacificResidentTheatre.com

–Steven Stanley
May 29, 2019