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Boston by Suzanne Bixby

The Last Five Years

Also see Suzanne's review of The Gigolo Confessions of Baile Breag

SpeakEasy Stage Company's production of The Last Five Years has a lot going for it besides the intriguing fact that it's loosely based on bookwriter/composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown's own failed first marriage. Though he claims the show is "personal, not autobiographical," it hit close enough to home for his ex-wife to derail the show's intended fast-track trajectory. Despite a wildly successful out-of-town mounting at Chicago's Northlight Theatre in the summer of 2001, Lincoln Center dropped plans to transfer the piece they'd originally commissioned.

Other producers stepped in to work through the litigation and give the show its Off Broadway premiere six months later. The New York run wasn't much longer than the Chicago premiere, but Brown did win Drama Desk Awards for his music and lyrics to go along with his Tony for Parade. And thanks in part to its modest production requirements - a cast of two and a unit set - this show is popping up everywhere.

The Last Five YearsFinding the right two performers and giving a 90-minute song cycle some flair can be a challenge, however. The good news here is that Becca Ayers (Catherine) and Tally Sessions (Jamie) look right, sound right and put the tale across - what there is to tell, anyway. They've got the vocal chops, some aplomb and enough good sense to reign in the accusations and acrimony so we (almost) forget how puerile and banal these twenty-something characters really are.

While the story may be weak, this production certainly does have flair. Director Eric C. Engel keeps the progression on track - backwards in time for her; forwards chronologically for him - as best he can and measures out the "blame" like the controlled substance that it is.

Susan Zeeman Rogers' intriguing set, a sort of deconstructed wedding cake with a revolve, sliding doors and frosted backlit panels, would be less overwhelming if it were used to a greater extent. Linda O'Brien's effective yet subtle lighting and David Brooks' attractive, appropriate costumes aid the progression of events nicely.

What does seem like overkill, however, is the use of microphones. Ayers and Sessions both have more than enough built-in wattage for a space much bigger than the BCA. To my "old fashioned" ear, Brown's terrific orchestrations don't call for amplifying the singers. The five-piece ensemble (piano, bass, guitar, violin and cello) led by SpeakEasy veteran Paul S. Katz is truly lovely.

My reaction to The Last Five Years in performance is not unlike how I felt sitting through his previous song cycle Songs For a New World. When he's good, he's very good, the standouts being "Stars and the Moon" from Songs ... and Jamie's "Shiksa Goddess" and Catherine's "Climbing Uphill" from this show. These numbers are all musically interesting, have specificity and genuine humor and manage to land somewhere.

Taking his cue from the breadth of projects tackled by the likes of Adam Guettel, Michael John LaChiusa and Ahrens & Flaherty, I hope Brown is on the lookout for interesting material to adapt or another challenging collaboration.

Jason Robert Brown will be in Boston for the following events:

Wednesday, February 11th at 7pm "Songwriting for Contemporary Musical Theatre" - a lecture/demonstration Berklee College of Music, 1140 Boylston Street, Room 1W Free, sponsored by Berklee and New Opera and Musical Theater Initiative (www.nomti.org).

Thursday, February 12th at 3pm Master class with Harvard undergraduate composers and performers Winthrop House Junior Common Room, 32 Mill St. (off Holyoke St.) Observers welcome; admission is free, no ticket or RSVPs required.

Thursday, February 12th following the 7:30 performance of The Last Five Years Audience Talkback at the BCA Theatre, moderated by Michael Wartofsky from NOMTI Sponsored by SpeakEasy Stage Company.

The Last Five Years now through February 29th presented by SpeakEasy Stage Co. (Paul Daigneault, Producing Artistic Director) at the BCA Theater, Boston Center for the Arts , 539 Tremont St. in Boston's South End. Performances are Wednesdays & Thursdays at 7:30pm; Fridays at 8pm; Saturdays at 4pm & 8pm and Sundays at 3pm & 7pm. (Sunday, Feb 29th only -3PM SOLD OUT - no 7pm show.) Tickets are priced at $30.00 - $35.00 depending on the performance with a $5 discount for students and seniors. Student Rush is $15, one hour before curtain, subject to availability. The BCA box office phone is 617-426-2787 or 617-482-3279.

Photo: Craig Bailey/CBE Photo


Be sure to check the current schedule for theatre in the Boston area.



- Suzanne Bixby



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