Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Last Five Years

The Last Five Years, now on stage at Redwood Curtain in Eureka, is the fifth musical produced on the North Coast since August, and the 11th since last September (if you count the two Mozart operas along with the three Sondheims and the two Lerner and Loewes.) It’s even the second time in that period for The Last Five Years, which Humboldt Light Opera performed (in part) in April.

 Written and composed by Jason Robert Brown, this show is almost entirely sung. There are only two characters: Jamie, a young novelist on the rise in Manhattan, and Catherine, a struggling actress. The story is about their relationship as a couple. However, they are together on stage for just one scene. The rest of the time each sings alone.

 On the level of the music and the performances, this is an enjoyable show. Ably supported by the band of Justin Ross, Amber Grimes and Pete Zuleger, the music is pop-oriented in various styles, with literate lyrics. There’s a definite imbalance: Jamie gets the big numbers and Cathy gets a lot of slow songs that are bittersweet at best. At times it’s like Billy Joel versus Alanis Morisette (two songwriters from Brown’s formative years.)

Nanette Voss-Herlihy is heroic in finding and expressing Cathy’s essence, and Kyle Ryan is confidently dazzling as Jamie, both as a singer and an actor. His every moment felt true. Out of his many recent appearances on various local stages, this is Ryan’s most complete performance.

 But regarding the story, if (like me) you haven’t seen this show before, I have some information you will probably find useful: Jamie’s story is told from the beginning to the end of the relationship, but Cathy’s story is sung from the end to the beginning. I learned this later from Wikipedia. I certainly didn’t learn it from seeing the show (or even from the enigmatic program note.)

 Starting at the end of a relationship and going back to the beginning has worked on the stage, notably in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal. Deconstructing a relationship from each person’s perspective, going in different directions in time, is a provocative postmodern idea, and it could even work if the procedure was made clear to the audience. Playing with relative time has its moments, but you shouldn’t have to be Einstein to figure out what’s going on. There is so much ambiguity in this text, helped not at all by the staging, that much of its emotion and possible meaning are lost.

 Apart from the universals of relationship, this story about the perils of success (first produced in 2002) has an almost nostalgic, 1990s Bright Lights, Big City, Masters of the Universe feel. However, the problems of two-career couples in the arts are particular and perennial.

 The Last Five Years is directed by Dianne Zuleger, with scenic and lighting design by Michael Burkhart, and costumes by Kevin Sharkey. It is on stage at Redwood Curtain Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. through Nov. 17, with a 2 p.m. matinee on Nov. 13,

 So what about this run of musicals since summer? Qualitatively, I’d suggest Mary Jane: The Musical as the most relevant, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels as the most fun, Into the Woods as the most family-friendly. Sweeney Todd was the best play and Brigadoon had the best music.

 Generally speaking, North Coast companies do musicals well, and this run kept people busy but stretched the talent base thin, not to mention the audience. It also suggests that communication among these institutions could still be a lot better.

 Coming Up: At the Arcata Playhouse, Bay Area actor and Celtic harpist Patrick Ball performs his musical tribute to Irish legend Turlough O’Carolan in O’Carolan’s Farewell to Music for one night only on Friday November 4 at 7 p.m.

 Opening on Friday (November 4) at the College of the Redwoods Forum Theater is the Humboldt Light Opera Company KidCo production of Alice in Wonderland, Jr. Directed by Cindy Cress, with musical direction by Amy Chalfant, this family musical with familiar characters and scenes from the Lewis Carroll Alice books features children from ages 5 to 17, including Ciara Cheli-Colando, Camille Asbill, Kyra Dart, Rachel Post, Isabella Loch, Lily Buschmann, Kayla Kossow, Gabby Fell, Leah Selcer, James Zwiker, Kalex Sweetfire-Spoon, Allie Sanchez, Estelle Fuller, Anna Vodopals, Erin Casper and Kaylie Doebel. It runs Fridays and Saturdays, Nov. 4-5 and 11-12 at 7 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee on November 6.

 At the Redbud Theatre in Willow Creek, the comedy Academia Nuts by Gregg Kreutz is performed November 4, 5, 11 and 12 at 8 p.m. The cast includes Brian Bottemiller (who also directs,) Roland Grubb, Libby Pinto and Vicki Kurtz.

Additional Notes on The Last Five Years

My review of the current Redwood Curtain show, The Last Five Years, is in the current NC Journal and here online.  If you check the online review at the Journal site, you can also see a "rebuttal" that seems to be from the show's director.

I'll skip over the dismissive tone of her comments to get to the substance.  I stand by my experience of the show, both of the outstanding performances (I don't know who she's arguing with there) and the failure of the play.  On that I feel even more strongly than I expressed in the review.  On the matter of intelligibility, she seems to think the program statement ("The action moves simultaneously between the present and the past”) clarifies the matter. In my review I said it was enigmatic, and that's being kind.  It's meaningless nonsense.  It's unintelligible just as a sentence let alone as a description that clarifies the narrative procedure.

 She notes that the songs are listed with dates in the program.  There is no indication however of what the dates mean (usually it would be date of composition), and they are phonied up anyway for this production.  As I suggested in my review, setting this in 2011 has doubtful credibility( based on references within the songs as well as the cultural realities.)  Anyway, should we have to be reading the program during the show to understand what's going on?  Let alone the theatre website.

As for the implication that this is just the misjudgment of one cranky reviewer, it isn't.  There are other cranky reviewers of other productions who had the same problem.  When I'm baffled by something I've experienced, I try to find out if it's something I missed that is clear to everyone else.  That's not the case with this play, beginning with the New York Times review of the original production. 

It is the experience of the play that strips it of emotional force, except within the context of each song.  There is no way to match the perceptions of the two characters in time.  Mostly they seem to be singing about a completely different person from the one we just heard sing--which may be part of the point, but as an experience it is simply incoherent.  There is no reference point, no ground to stand on. At the beginning of the show it's not at all clear they are even singing about each other--there are no clear indications in the text or the staging.

(See also this relevant temporal mechanics note.)

 Basically, the device (of one character starting from the beginning of the relationship while the other character starts from the end) may be clever but in practice, it just doesn't work as a play.  Presented in a concert setting perhaps, with titles of some kind to set the time, or people rustling through their programs to find the date, it minimally might.  Even blocking the play so that the character moving forward in time moves left to right like a clock might help, though in the digital age this may also be less psychologically suggestive.  

There are other problems I didn't get into.  The characters are barely credible.  Jamie is supposed to be a suddenly successful novelist. The playwright might have known about New York theatre from experience (he's writing about himself apparently, and his relationship at the time) but he's questionable about how things work in the literary world, or even did work in the 90s.  In this production, as wonderful as Kyle Ryan's performance is, his stage persona is a bit too likeable for the character of Jamie.  It makes many of Cathy's complaints and characterizations seem delusional. 

I'm glad to hear that audiences are enjoying the show. There's plenty in the songs themselves and certainly the performances to enjoy (as the review said.)

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