Composer and wordsmithing wunderkind Jason Robert Brown, a Tony Award winner while still in his 20s, an arranger, director, performer and playwright (“Parade,” the thoughtful “Songs for a New World,” the sad and star-crossed “The Last Five Years,” particularly), is in our town this weekend as the guest of a fledgling theater company, New Buffalo Productions. While here, Brown will wear yet another hat, that of teacher in a NBP-sponsored master class this afternoon for a group of selected young vocalists.
Brown also attended a performance of his “The Last Five Years,” a chamber piece starring two fine young talents, Leah Schneider and Christopher Wietig, now on The Alleyway Theatre stage for this weekend only. I think that he’ll be generally pleased – with a caveat or two.
The story, personal, with maybe autobiographical moments, is based on Brown’s first marriage. It’s a 90-minute recollection of events from the perspectives of Jamie and Cathy: She relives from the ending of their days together – a note is found saying that the marriage is history and there is hurt and recrimination – and he from the very beginning, halcyon days of first touch, sparks, promise and potential.
Fourteen songs, most challenging to sing and backed by music difficult to play, tell of time and place, emotions gone amok and a pick-up-the-pieces future for both. There is little actual dialogue – just about every word is sung to gentle rock rhythms with classical influences and the two should-be, could-be lovers meet only once. When they say their goodbyes, one thinks it’s only until tomorrow, the other knows it’s final. George Bernard Shaw said that love is “part foolishness, part curiosity.” Jamie and Cathy didn’t get it.
So, it’s not a case of audiences learning too much information. In fact, if they must play the blame game or take on the role of jury, the given reasons for the Jamie-Cathy split can be easily sorted out: too much time apart. He’s a touted young writer, his ego stroked, too many wine and cheese “Meet the Author” parties; she’s an actress with few prospects except summer stock in Ohio with an ex-stripper and her pet snake. They “grew apart.” Too easy. We learn much from the songs. Infidelity is the game-changer and one song, “Nobody Needs to Know,” pretty much sums it up. Jamie seems the heavy. Maybe.
And so this “The Last Five Years,” a favorite of twentysomethings, has been given loving treatment by NBP but they didn’t do themselves any favors by placing a six-piece James Welch ensemble –keyboard, guitar, bass, violin, two cellos – on stage and just a few feet from Jamie and Cathy’s comings and goings. Because the songs, more than most musicals, are so explanatory and vital, lyrics very often get lost with the competition between voices and pulsating strings. From Cathy’s important opening lament, “Still Hurting,” deciphering is a challenge.
Director Paul Mockovak takes a minimalist approach and it mostly works. A prop or two wouldn’t hurt though. The engagement scene in Central Park, for example. Was it a picnic? Maybe they were back in Ohio. Sometimes less could use a little more.
Schneider, golden-voiced, pristine, depressed here, radiant there, is superb; she’s wonderful on the telling “I’m Part of That” and the wise “I Can Do Better Than That.” Wietig walks well the line between good guy and bad, believable on his ballads (“The Next Ten Minutes”) and on tunes of whimsy (“The Schmuel Song”). Both Schneider and Wietig have laudable acting chops, so important here. They look right, feel right, sound right. Impressive work by this pair.
The show is intriguing in its format and ultimately heartbreaking. All in all, a passing grade for the debuting New Buffalo Productions in this complex “The Last Five Years.”