The Last Five Years (Short North Stage – Columbus, OH)

The Last Five Years is one of those rare musicals that has achieved major popularity without hitting Broadway, its status cemented by an excellent cast recording of its brief 2002 off-Broadway run. The show was revived off-Broadway in 2013 and adapted into a film in 2015, and it continues to have a healthy life in licensing across the country in regional and community theatres. Now it is time for Columbus’ own Short North Stage to present the show, replacing the previously announced The Flick in their season schedule. This production is a great example of how so many quite good elements can combine to result in something that just doesn’t quite deliver in a way one should expect from a show of this stature.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Melissa Hall (Catherine) and Jarrad Biron Green (Jamie)
 
Jason Robert Brown’s ode to a relationship between two people from their initial blush of attraction to the sputtering embers of their separation is reportedly autobiographical, borrowing major elements from his first marriage. It is a sung-through piece with the leads, Catherine and Jamie, singing alternating songs; Catherine’s story is told in reverse chronological order while Jamie’s starts at the beginning. Seating is arranged on The Garden Theatre stage on opposite sides of the action; this allows for the audience to be quite close to the performers, but it also drastically limits seating capacity. 

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Jarrad Biron Green (Jamie) and Melissa Hall (Catherine)
 
There is no fault to be found in the singing abilities of Melissa Hall as Catherine or Jarrad Biron Green as Jamie; these two sound terrific, especially in their one duet, “The Next Ten Minutes,” which closes the first act. Music director Andrew Willis summons clean and full-sounding instrumentals from his small ensemble, and Edward Carignan’s set helps create a certain kind of mood necessary for this piece; a rotating platform maneuvered by the cast becomes a bridge as well as many other things with a pool of standing water and some plants in the rear, and a park bench is opposite it framed by long drapes. Sophia Gersing’s animated art for “The Schmuel Song” brings to mind a similar use of animation in the film version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch; the use of limited animation was a delightful part of that film just as it is a welcome addition here. The sound design is a bit off in this environment as the voices of the actors always come from the far left or right depending on which side of the stage you are seated; this is quite disconcerting whenever the performers sing downstage as their voices are amplified coming from the opposite direction. Still, the orchestra sounds quite crisp and full, only occasionally drowning out Mr. Green’s singing. The lighting, while often quite beautiful, also appears a bit off as Mr. Green is illuminated in one scene from just his chest down; another scene shows Ms. Hall with a hard light bisecting her forehead, leaving her hair and the top of her head in darkness. 

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Jarrad Biron Green (Jamie) – Art by Sophia Gersing
 
The main issue I have with this production is that it is acted without the arc written into the material. With the structure of the show being what it is and being sung through, it could seem easy to pull off with limited means when in fact it probably puts more stress on the performers to act more in their singing. We should see Catherine go from being a broken woman (“Still Hurting”) to incredibly optimistic (“Goodbye Until Tomorrow”) as well as seeing Jamie transform from an ambitious author who just met Catherine and is excited (“Shiksa Goddess”) to a philandering husband who leaves her (“I Could Never Rescue You”). In lieu of this, director Nick Lingnofski gives us a Catherine who always looks like someone just stole her puppy and a Jamie who remains a narcissistic jerk throughout (he sneers out some of “Moving Too Fast,” making some of the words unintelligible). It’s difficult to hit any real emotional depth when neither character seems like they are playing with a full deck, making their one duet sound great but feel empty. It is difficult to believe that this Catherine would ever have found anything to like in this Jamie, who from his entrance appears like he wants to flip off the audience. 

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Melissa Hall (Catherine)
 

The Last Five Years is alternately depressing as well as hopeful, and its score is full of gems that are relatable to most anyone who has ever been in a relationship on rocky ground. While this production didn’t get to me in my gut like other productions I’ve seen of this work, it is far from being terrible. Hearing this score live bests listening to a recording of it any day, and being seated so close to the performers only adds to the experience. While I had hoped for a deeper emotional connection this time around, Short North Stage’s The Last Five Years is pleasant enough even if it misses the bull’s-eye.

**/ out of ****

The Last Five Years continues through to May 22nd in The Garden Theatre located at 1187 North High Street in Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.shortnorthstage.org/calendar/v/535

13: The Musical (Star Performance Academy – Columbus, OH)

13: The Musical may have only ran for about three months on Broadway in the fall of 2008, but it made history as the first and only musical with an all-teenage cast and band. It’s a show that I didn’t get to see during its short Broadway run as it opened and closed between trips, but I was excited to learn that Star Performance Academy would be presenting it for two weekends so I could finally see it. I expected it to be at the very least passable because of the involvement of musician Jason Robert Brown, but I was pleasantly surprised to find it to be quite a vibrant and relevant show, perfectly suited for large cast of teens and pre-teens.

 

Photo: Keely Kurtas-Chapman
 
Drew Adams is Evan, a Jewish kid transplanted from Manhattan to Appleton, Indiana, after his parents’ divorce. He’s a fish out of water, but quickly befriends his neighbor, Patrice (winningly played by Kate Glaser). Evan looks forward to turning thirteen in the fall and having his bar mitzvah, expecting it to be the party that will help him gain popularity with his classmates. Once school starts he finds that his friendship with Patrice threatens his budding friendship with “cool kids” Brett (future heart-breaker David Rausch, who also throws a great stage punch), Kendra (Marin Tillman), and Lucy (Samantha Stepp). Evan has to learn to be true to himself and deal with the cliques and peer pressures of junior high school, something easier said than done when entering a battlefield where teams were divided long before he ever showed up.

The book by Dan Elish and Robert Horn is clever and smart. The teens speak the way I hear real teens speak, minus the cruder language. The kids are precocious and not politically-correct, that’s for sure, but I’m so glad that what they say hasn’t been sanitized to the point of being banal. One of the big plot points involves French kissing and getting to “bases,” but there is nothing here that would shock anyone over the age of ten, though it may make some of the adults nervous about an impending conversation. Jason Robert Brown’s songs propel the action forward and are simple but effective, and the kids appear to really enjoy singing them.

It takes a special director to corral all of these kids and keep them focused on the task at hand, and director Keely Kurtas-Chapman does just that. The play is performed in one act totaling around a hundred minutes and never drags for a moment. Choreographer Marrett Laney (I enjoyed seeing her as Martha Jefferson in Pickerington Community Theatre’s 1776 this summer) devises some inventive dances for the large cast, at one point bringing them out into the audience to great effect. There is a palpable sense of joy to be experienced here, and I only wish I had been as fortunate as these kids to have such an opportunity at their age.

Special attention needs to be given to Keegan Sells as Archie, a kid living with muscular dystrophy. Mr. Sells manages his crutches like a pro and delivers every line to maximum comedic effect; he’s a scene-stealer to watch out for. McKinley Witt as Charlotte doesn’t have a big role but has a solo near the end that allows her crystalline voice to shine. Sabrina Brush as Molly has a great presence and strong stage voice, another talent that stands out. Bella Eberhardt plays Eddie with a backwards ball cap and scowl that would make any boy proud. I also enjoyed recognizing Raydn Allbaugh (Richie) from seeing him in Pickerington Community Theatre’s Oliver! back in May, and I just saw Taryn Huffman (Cassie) in Shots in the Dark’s Big Fish a few weeks ago.

  
This is my first time attending the Star Performance Academy, and I’m glad my phone could lead me there as I don’t know my way around the east side of Columbus (towards Blacklick) very well. The maroon and green building is across the street from Niagara Bottling on Eastgate Plaza, and a makeshift sign directs people to park in Niagara’s lot due to the limited parking. The building itself has a comfortable lobby, large stage, and an auditorium that seems to double as a dancing area with ballet bars and mirrored walls and collapsible chairs put out for the show. If this performance of 13: The Musical is any indication, Star Performance Academy appears to be a grand training ground for future theatre talent as well as great center for kids within this sometimes awkward age group to learn to work together towards a common goal – putting on a show.

The only detriment to my experience (and I hate having to report it) was the wildly erratic sound at the performance I attended. I’m used to sometimes mics going out or not being live when they need to be for dialogue to be heard, but from the very beginning of this performance it was clear something had seriously gone wrong. Drew Adams (playing Evan, the main character) had a mic that was cutting in and out continuously, and they kept raising the volume, introducing loud white noise and static as his voice would continue to go in and out. Other performers experienced similar issues with screeching distortion particularly affecting David Rausch (Brett) and Keegan Sells (Archie) during their solo moments in the second half of the show. Only Samantha Stepp (Lucy) had a mic that caused no problems (which was nice as her singing voice was melodic and beautiful), and I’d be lying if I said the sound problems were minor. Was a sound check done before the performance? It was bad enough that it took a lot of effort to try to hear past it to enjoy the show; I doubt anyone would’ve minded had they stopped to try to correct whatever was causing the myriad of sound issues (it seemed mostly family and friends were in the audience). The cast worked through the sound issues, but even they seemed a little annoyed when they would hear the screeching and crackling that varied as they would move around the stage. It would’ve been better had they simply shut the mics off and used the standing mics for whatever sound they would pick up, but this wasn’t done.

Still, I’m glad I saw 13: The Musical, and I enjoyed the story, the songs, and the ebullient efforts of its large adolescent cast. I hope the sound issues I experienced were an anomaly that affected only the Saturday matinee that I attended. The cast deserves a strong technical crew to make sure they are being heard properly as they are doing a terrific job of telling the story.

*** out of ****

(** if they don’t sort out the sound issues that plagued the performance I attended)

13: The Musical continues through to August 15th at Star Performance Academy at 1701 Eastgate Plaza (the address is Columbus, but in reality it’s on the edge of Blacklick), and more information can be found at http://www.starperformanceacademy.org/shows.asp

   
 

Honeymoon in Vegas (Nederlander Theatre – NYC)

Last night I saw Honeymoon in Vegas on Broadway. I was able to score a second row orchestra seat on the aisle at the last minute, which has me concerned about the show’s ticket selling power. It’s a solid, good show, and it has a terrific score. I have the CD but haven’t listened to it yet, an oversight that I will definitely rectify soon.

I’ve never seen the film that the musical is based on, but the show has the basic “guy has cold feet – loses girl – warms feet and wins girl back” premise. I didn’t expect it to be as funny as it was, or for it to move so quickly with as much joy.

Rob McClure, looking far more handsome live than he appears in the show’s advertising (think a goofier, looser Zachary Levi), is adorable as the lead, and his energy is infectious. Brynn O’Malley as his fiancée is just as engaging, and the pair have great chemistry and look like a couple. Brynn’s wig netting was quite visible during the first act, but that isn’t her fault.

Tony Danza is a strong performer but doesn’t overpower his cast mates, which seems to take some effort on his part. It’s not because the rest of the cast isn’t interesting, but because Danza has an abundance of charm and likeablity about him. He plays a rather conniving, sleazy role, but his resting face is one with a smile, so it is hard not to like him even when I’m not supposed to! Aside from him straining to sing in a key higher than advisable in a song that was unnecessary anyway and not allowing himself to really be seen as despicable, I found Tony Danza difficult to criticize. The cast all seem to like performing with him as well, as I caught a few sly smiles and winks here and there. Would the show work better with someone playing the role as truly rotten? Probably, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy Danza’s softer, safe interpretation.

Nancy Opel as McClure’s mom is outrageous and not afraid to appear truly hideous in that “elderly librarian cat lady” way. She pops up unexpectedly several times as a figment of McClure’s imagination, though eventually it appears that other people can see and hear her two, notably in a scene in which she is a tree (don’t ask) and dropping down from the sky in full Elvis drag. Her asides end up coming off as too silly for my taste, but her moments on stage were the ones that made me laugh the most.

I hope this show finds its audience and eventually tours. It’s fun, engaging, silly, modern – there is an awful lot to like in it.

***/****