He said, she said
Elite’s latest musical charts a relationship on the rocks
By Jenny Lower 02/28/2013
The Last Five Years, Jason Robert Brown’s cult favorite about creative types who fall in, and out, of love over half a decade, signals a new chapter for Elite. The contemporary musical marks the theater’s first production since its relocation to Channel Islands Harbor, after 19 years in Oxnard’s Heritage Square. The show kicks off a season selected by director Andrew James (also Elite’s co-artistic director in 2012 and now its permanent managing director).
Most importantly, the rock musical stands as the freshest, most vibrant production the theater has mounted in recent memory.
Performed without an intermission and narrated exclusively through song, the pop opera chronicles the courtship and breakup of a 20-something New York couple: Jamie, a literary wunderkind, and Cathy, an aspiring actress. But while Jamie’s story progresses chronologically, from first kiss to moving in together, Cathy begins with the relationship already in the rearview mirror. As Jamie slowly advances, building frustrations, Cathy rewinds, shedding hurt. And so we get a lovely puzzle of a play, with the seeds of conflict sown on one side of the stage while its bittersweet fruit ripens on the other.
James double-cast Cathy, who, on opening night, was played by the silver-voiced Stephanie Mieko Cohen (she alternates with Rena Petrello). Brown’s structure plays out a bit rougher on Cathy: grieving at the outset, she must work harder to win over the audience, who gets to warm to Jamie at his most likable. Cohen handles these challenges well. The stronger singer, she offers a contained performance whose inwardness suits her character’s insecurity. But in “Climbing Uphill,” we gain insight into her competitiveness and pride when she declares, “I will not be the girl stuck at home in the ’burbs with the baby, the dog and the garden of herbs … I will not be the girl who gets asked how it feels to be trotting along at the genius’s heels.”
As Jamie, Kyle Caldwell’s vocals soar less precisely than Cohen’s, but his enthusiasm and charisma balance Cathy, especially in the early scenes. Caldwell’s boyish looks make him a credible 23-year-old, while his depth and maturity allow him to grow into a thoughtful, if flawed, husband. He appears least at ease during the interminable “Schmuel Song” — the oddest inclusion in the entire score — but the humor and pathos he brings to numbers like “A Miracle Would Happen” and “Nobody Needs to Know” give their romance dimension.
With nearly all the songs written as solos, the play limits Cathy and Jamie’s physical interaction, an apt metaphor for their eventual estrangement. James opts for a hybrid staging: both characters get their own universe to one side (his desk, her piano) and engage in the shared space at centerstage: their apartment. This technique works well thematically, though Cohen can seem a bit exiled in her remote corner of the stage. More problematic is the partial rotating stage, which, while technologically ambitious, ends up detracting from the fluid transitions with its creaky execution.
Brown has set his musical on the East Coast in the recent past, but its story arc feels both specific (Brown’s ex-wife threatened to sue because Cathy so closely resembled her) and timeless. Whether Elite’s core audience will embrace it remains to be seen, but the selection may point to a pleasantly modern note for this reinvigorated theater — for the next five years and beyond.
The Last Five Years, Elite Theatre Company, through March 30. 2731 Victoria Blvd., Oxnard. 483-5118 or www.elitetheatre.org.