This has been a weekend of love. Friday night we saw a Shakespearean celebration of love through the eyes of Galt MacDermot and John Guare: Two Gentlemen of Verona – The Musical (nee “A Grand New Musical”). Last night (Saturday), we saw a different sort of celebration: The Last 5 Years by Jason Robert Brown (FB) at Actors Co-op (FB) today, part of the Actors Co-Op’s Actors Co-Op Too! summer series — a series of short runs to explore new plays, grow new directors and new actors, and season the acting muscles of existing company members.
If I had the choice of a musical to see, The Last 5 Years would not be it. I’ve seen it three times before: 2016 at ACT San Francisco; 2006 at REP East; and 2006 at the Pasadena Playhouse. It is one of those musicals that gets trotted out when you need an inexpensive two-hander; it is a great showcase for two actor-singers. But for an audience member, it is unclear what the different versions bring. So why see it again? Partially because it was offered to subscribers, and I’m all about value and getting my subscription dollar’s worth. Partially because I view it as a salami and eggs show: it is a reference dish that is a good test of a theatre.
The Last Five Years is a simple show in terms of story: there are two actors, and they rarely appear together. The show tells the story of the relationship between Jamie and Cathy. Cathy’s version of the relationship story is told backwards: from the breakup to when they meet. Jamie version is forward: from when they meet to the breakup. They are only together at the middle (the marriage) and the last scene (but that time their songs are separate). The story alternates between the two stories, and from it the audience gets the story.
Given this structure, the storytelling depends on two things: the performance and the music. Jason Robert Brown (FB)’s music has the JRB romantic musical sound (i.e., you’ll find that The Bridges of Madison County has a similar sound): deep, lush, emotive, and at times playful. There are some very beautiful songs in L5Y; there are some very funny songs; and there are some very poignant songs. It is a test of the actor-singer who must convey everything through performance and voice. This is especially true in the small theatre where the lushness of the score is reduced by simplification to a single keyboard.
My reaction to the Actors Co-op production of The Last 5 Years was mixed. I really liked Claire Adams (FB)’s Cathy. I felt she brought a wonderful sense of performance and character to the role, and I enjoyed her singing. This is the third time we’ve seen Adams; we saw her previously in both Lucky Stiff and A Funny Thing…Forum. In this show, her face was a delight to watch and wonderfully expressive; her body language was real; her comedy adept. I enjoyed her singing voice, and didn’t notice any significant problems. A cousin who came with me — who has had some professional vocal training — did notice some. Setting aside her comments on “Broadway voice”, she did note that the singing was done in a way that was more tiring to the vocal cords; looking back, I can see that the voice was more tired near the end. So, as this is a workshop production and thus desirous of constructive comments, my one suggestion for the actress would be to work on that: she has a great voice, and learning how to use it in a way that doesn’t expose it to strain can only be a good thing. But I really enjoyed the performance aspects — it brought some wonderful insights and views of the character that I hadn’t seen before. This was apparent from the “get-go” in the opening number, “Still Hurting”, where you could see the real emotion coming through in the staging. It continued through her numbers — all of which were great.
On the other hand, there was Dorian Keyes (FB)’s Jamie. Sigh. I mean, I was rooting for him, as a fellow software engineer. After all, this is a guy that with other computer science friends started a production company called Nerd Squad. Further, although not shown in the program (but discovered doing this writeup), he’s played the character a few months before this outing. So he should have been much better. The main problem: he just didn’t give off the vibe that made him believable as the character. That is, he didn’t strike me as particularly New York Jewish (which Jamie is clearly), nor was he believable as a writer and author. Nowhere was this problem clearer than in “The Schmuel Song”, which has become a classic Jewish character story-song. His focus was on the cheesy Christmas tree; he didn’t bring Schmuel to life — there was no sense of being in that tailor shop in Clemovich. To me, his voice was a bit generic and lacking the character I like to see come through in a voice (the reason I love folks like Susan Egan or Kate Baldwin). My cousin characterized his voice as mediocre — it needs more training to develop character and strength and depth. I think, overall, I’m not saying that he was bad — because he wasn’t. A better characterization is … non-descript. His performance wasn’t the “Wow! 🎆” that Jamie needs to be. He was average on the edge of good; but when contrasted with the powerhouse portrayal of Cathy from Adams, there was no shine to the star. In terms of workshop constructive criticism: this is actor that needs some more seasoning on the acting and singing side. The bones of a good performer are there, but a greater variety of roles, with directors who can help him find the depth to bring it out, and vocal coaches to help mature and strengthen his voice (as well as discovering how to bring character to that voice) will help in the long run.
This production was directed by Laura Manchester (FB). I’ve always said that I have difficulty telling where what an actor brings stops and what the director brings starts. That’s certainly true here. Manchester produced the background film used as part of the scenic design, as aside from one faux paus I’ll mention in a bit, that was excellent. Manchester’s direction of Adams as Cathy was strong and on-point. But with respect to Keyes, it was weaker — and again, this came across clearly in “The Schmuel Song”, where seemingly the character’s focus was setting up the Christmas Tree (an incongruous thing for a Jewish person to do), and not the charm of the story song. It may have been a casting issue; her FB (discovered while writing this) shows she was having some difficulty casting the role, so this could simply have been the problem of finding the right actor, and that actor having the right connection with both the director and the story. The director also had to contend with the nature of the theatre space used. Every other production I’ve seen of this show has been proscenium based: the actors on a stage surrounded by a proscenium, separated from the audience. This production used the Crossly Theatre space, which is a “theatre in the round” space with the audience on three sides. Manchester used that space well, bringing the actors forward and interacting with the audience on all sides; she also used the entry and exit arches to good effect.
On the production side: The scenic design by Nicholas Acciani (FB) had a number of bookcase boxes and other props in the back, and incorporated multiple small projection screens for which Nicholas Acciani (FB) provided the projection design and Laura Manchester (FB) provided the content. This mostly worked quite well, except in the “I Can Do Better Than That” scene. The problem there? The actors are facing forward, playing the scene as if they were driving in the direction of the front center audience. So, from the audience perspective, they are looking through the front windshield at the actors, and the projections should have been reflecting what is seen in the rear window. But instead, the projections were as if the car was driving in the direction the audience was facing. In other words: The view was as if that actors were driving the car in reverse without even looking over their rear shoulders. This was an unnecessary video disconnect that brought the audience out of the moment (or at least this roadgeek out of moment); it was also something easily avoidable simply by doing a 180° with the camera during the car filming (i.e., point it backwards).
But that was the only production-side flaw. The lighting design of Savannah Harrow (FB) and the sound design by Maddie Felgentreff (FB) both worked well, establishing mood and focusing attention. There was no credit for costume design: presumably this came from either the director or the actor’s closets. Adams’ costumes were great and fit the character well (plus she did some wonderful quick costume changes); Keyes’ costumes were often a bit informal for the type of author this character purported to be. Savannah Harrow (FB) was the stage manager; the production was produced by Selah Victor (FB) and Laura Manchester (FB).
The Last 5 Years (which this production appears to write out as The Last Five Years, just as they change Kathy to Cathy) continues at Actors Co-op (FB) through August 5th, with remaining performances on July 30 at 2:30pm, August 4 at 8:00pm. August 5 at 2:30pm and 8:00pm. Tickets are a suggested donation starting at $10 and FREE to all 2017-2018 Season Subs. Visit their website www.actorsco-op.org or call the box office at 323-462-8460 to reserve your seat.
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) (well, make that 5 Stars Theatricals (FB)), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, and a mini-subscription at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
August starts with Brian Setzer at the Hollywood Bowl (FB) on August 2, followed by The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) on the weekend. We are also squeezing in On The Twentieth Century at the Pan-Andreas Theatre in Hollywood from Proof Doubt Closer (FB), as a friend is in the cast. The second weekend of August? What made sitting through The Bodyguard worth it: Hamilton at the Hollywood Pantages (FB).
I’m still scheduling September, but so far we have The 39 Steps° at Actors Co-op (FB) and Pacific Overtures at Chromolume Theatre (FB) [although a little birdie … OK, Nance from Chromolume whom I saw at The Last Five Years, indicated the dates on that are shifting out to November]. There’s also the Men of TAS Golf Tournament, if any theatre company reading this wants to donate tickets to our silent auction (hint, hint). October is also filling up quickly, with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB), the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) at the Valley Performing Arts Center (FB), a tribute to Ray Charles — To Ray With Love — also at the Valley Performing Arts Center (FB), and Bright Star at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Lastly, looking into November, we have The Man Who Came to Dinner at Actors Co-op (FB), the Nottingham (FB) and Tumbleweed (FB) Festivals, a Day Out with Thomas at Orange Empire Railway Museum (FB), Spamilton at the Kirk Douglas Theatre (FB) and Something Rotten at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). More as the schedule fleshes out, of course, but we’re booking all the way out in mid to late 2018 already!
As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.