Monday, June 24, 2013

Cloverdale Playhouse: "The Last Five Years"

Guest Reviewer: Layne Holley

The Cloverdale Playhouse brings a new show to the region with Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years, and audiences are smitten with this emotional roller coaster of an operetta.

In just 85 minutes, we watch five years in the lives of young New Yorkers Cathy and Jamie. Cathy's story is told from end to beginning, while Jamie's is related from beginning to end. We know immediately that the joy will be finite and that the pain will continue to resonate as we hear first Cathy (Jesse Alston) describe the loss of the relationship in "Still Hurting" and then Jamie (Jonathan Connor) on the mountaintop of new love in "Shiska Goddess". Lightning strikes for Jamie, a budding writer whose career takes off just as he and Cathy fall in love. But for Cathy, an aspiring actress, no such stroke of luck occurs, and she feels bound to live in Jamie's shadow; her fear of losing him to his dream becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What puts the backward/forward structure into the category of clever device is that it creates a two-person musical where the characters -- since they are only once sharing the same moment in time -- don't really interact with each other physically. Mr. Connor and Miss Alston handle well the considerable burden to convey their emotional connection without aid of a physical one.

The actors are required to display a wide emotional range with music as the main source of exposition, a challenging demand. Miss Alston particularly shines in "A Miracle Would Happen/When You Come Home to Me", which manages to be funny, pitiable, and angry at once. Mr. Connor moves easily from silly-sweet and encouraging in the wonderfully executed "The Schmuel Song" to villain in "Nobody Needs to Know". The music itself is difficult. Imagine Stephen Sondheim and Dave Matthews setting up shop in Brown's head and you have a good idea of the vocal dexterity required. And when they are able to master control of the music (which is frequent) and compete with the orchestra in the small space, Miss Alston and Mr. Connor are sublime.

Director/Music Director Randy Foster has guided the two young actors to a successful realization of very difficult material. He must also be applauded for paring down a typically large technical endeavor to fit nicely on the Playhouse's cozy stage. He cleverly replaces cumbersome scene changes with an unobtrusive slide show (made possible by James Treadway's projection design) that provides key points of reference in time and location throughout this gripping odyssey.