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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Good Singing Helps Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years

Also see Richard's review of The Seagull and Arcadia

Jason Robert Brown's 83 minute paean of the five year relationship of a young couple finally has reached the Northern California area. The Last Five Years has been popping up everywhere since the Off Broadway production that starred Sherie Rene Scott and Norbert Leo Butz in 2002.

Playhouse West is currently presenting the mini-musical with Alison Ewing, who was seen on Broadway in Cabaret as Lulu, and Jeff Leibow, who has played in many musicals at TheatreWorks. The musical runs through June 26 at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek.

Jason Robert Brown has written a consummate score of melody and lyrics to show how a relationship starts and fails after five years. Jamie (Jeff Leibow), a successful Jewish novelist, falls in love with a "shiksa" (Alison Ewing), a stage actress who seems destined to only playing summer stock. There is a nonconformist way of telling this story: Jamie tells of the start of the romance from the beginning while Cathy starts her tale from the end of the marriage and sings through to the beginning. She sings a song, then he sings, then she sings as it goes back and forth through the no intermission 83 minute course.

Many of the songs are pleasing and some seem like a nonspecific type of love songs one hears today. Some of the lyrics are banal and there is a little touch of Sondheim in some of the melodies. It's a show that will not send you away humming any great tunes. The story of the tailor in "The Schmuel Song" is a typical Jewish song with a klezmer beat; however, it goes on a mite too long. Cathy's song about playing summer stock in Ohio co-starring with a famous midget actor playing Tevya and sharing a dressing room with a former stripper is hilarious. Also, her audition song where she hates the piano player is humorous.

Alison Ewing has a beautiful sweet voice and her first song, "Still Hurting," is marvelously rendered. She has a particular timbre after she discovers the note that officially ends their relationship. Ewing is wonderful as she mourns the loss of the marriage.

Jeff Leibow brings a boyish quality to the role. He is a contradiction in terms since he is both loving and unfaithful. He is narcissistic but well meaning. His movement about the stage reminded me of a teenager in an adult body. Leibow has an appealing voice when singing his solos.

From his piano, Brandon Adams directs the four piece combo, which consists of a bass, violin and guitar. He gets remarkable tones from the combo. Lois Grandi's direction and choreography is very good on a small stage that consists of shiny boxes and a ramp going into a center doorway.

The Last Years runs through June 26th at the Knights 3 Theatre of the Dean Lesher Center for the Arts, Civic Drive, Walnut Creek. For tickets call 925-943-SHOW or visit www.playhousewest.org.

The company opens their new season with Steven Dietz's Force of Nature on September 3rd.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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