Jason Leupold and Neely Gevaart. PHOTO | Kathy Sandham

Lakeland Civic Theatre’s ‘The Last Five Years’ charming in spite of itself

By Bob Abelman

At the heart of Jason Robert Brown’s intensely personal musical “The Last Five Years” is a simple story about a singular event: The failed marriage between Cathy Hiatt, a young, aspiring but unaccomplished New York actress, and Jamie Wellerstein, a highly successful first novelist.

The play begins with Cathy at the depressing end of the relationship, where she sings the tender-to-the touch torch song “Still Hurting.” Jamie is at the relationship’s joyful beginning, singing about a girl he just met in the upbeat “Shiksa Goddess.” As the play progresses, their respective timelines converge, cross and once again careen in opposite directions, leaving Cathy at the conception of the relationship and Jamie at its conclusion as the lights fade to black.

This remarkable piece of slice-of-life storytelling, first staged in Chicago in 2001 and then produced Off-Broadway in 2002, is told exclusively through songs that run the gamut in range, tempo and temperament. Nearly every one of them is an intricate and strenuous vocal callisthenic that tests the mettle of the performers.

The songs require singers who can deliver them without stress or strain and make it look easy.

And, in order for the audience to invest in Cathy and Jamie and care about the demise of their relationship, the production requires actors who are immediately likable – no, lovable – despite their characters’ unpleasant attributes, namely his raging ego and her debilitating insecurities.

The show also requires performers comfortable enough in their own skin to stand alone and exposed during most of this one-act, 90-minute production, for there is little actual interaction between the two as they go their separate ways.

Neely Gevaart and Jason Leupold possess all of these qualities in this enchanting Lakeland Civic Theatre production.

Gevaart immediately wins over the audience upon uttering her first lines of lament over the failed marriage. The lyric “Jamie is over and Jamie is gone/Jamie’s decided it’s time to move on” is profoundly heart wrenching and beautiful when executed by this gifted singer. She has remarkable vocal control and though she does devastation well, Gevaart handles elation even better. Her rendition of “I Can Do Better Than That” is delightful.

Although Leupold doesn’t quite master Jamie’s self-absorbed drive – often substituting hyperactivity for passion – he is endearing from the get-go and a commanding presence on the stage. His rendition of “The Schmuel Song” – a pep talk to Cathy that encourages her to follow her dreams in the form of a fairy tale about a tailor too busy to dream – is absolutely charming.

The one drawback in this number is that director Martin Friedman has Jamie delivering the song to an empty chair rather than the audience or Cathy just out of sight. This turns us into voyeurs rather than engaged participants and suggests an emotional chasm between Jamie and Cathy at a time in the play when it doesn’t exist to that extent.

Actually, this is one of several efforts by Friedman to take a simple story and do something creative with the staging, which is admirable and well intended but often off-base.

Another is providing both performers with a collection of closet sectionals on wheels that contain character-defining artifacts, keepsakes and clothing. These clearly establish each character’s personal space and emotional baggage, and cleverly serve to disguise costume changes between songs.

But they are cumbersome to move – particularly while singing – and their relative placement does not always coincide with the relational timeline of the characters. This lack of attention to detail confuses matters rather than provides clarity.

One creative choice that works particularly well is having the wonderful orchestra – a piano (conductor Jordan Cooper), violin (Rachel Gante), cello (Olivia Clark) and bass (Tim Keo) – on stage behind the performers, which reinforces the play’s emphasis on song over dialogue and adds to the sound quality. Their silhouettes under Christina Pierce’s lighting design are gorgeous.

The conductor performing in shorts and sandals, however, underscores the aforementioned lack of attention to detail. While distracting, the voices, presence and lovability of Gevaart and Leupold still manage to bring all the attention back to where it belongs. CV

On stage

WHAT: “The Last Five Years”

WHERE: Lakeland Civic Theatre, 7700 Clocktower Drive, Kirkland

WHEN: Through Oct. 2

TICKETS: $7 – $15, call 440-525-7134 or visit lakelandcc.edu/arts

Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow him at facebook.com/BobAbelman3.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Sept. 23, 2016.

Lead image: Jason Leupold and Neely Gevaart. PHOTO | Kathy Sandham