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Voices rarely soar in disappointing 'Last Five Years'


Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years first appeared off Broadway in 2002 and immediately catapulted into the musical consciousness of the theater world, becoming one of the most beloved new musicals around. That it has done so with very few people actually seeing it is truly amazing, its rise to the top fueled almost entirely by the bestselling 2002 original cast recording.

The Last Five Years came to my attention a few years ago when local songstress Kelly Brandeberg (now finding her own way in New York City) sang some of the show's songs at a benefit concert in Rohnert Park. One song in particular, "I'm Still Hurting" (which opens the play), instantly struck me with its detailed intimacy and unconventional musical phrasing. The more I learned about the play, the more I was intrigued.

It contains just two actors (two-person musicals have since become all the rage) and is staged forward and backward at the same time, with a young gentile actress named Cathie lamenting the end of her marriage and then moving back in time toward the first date, as her Jewish writer husband, Jamie, begins at the first date and then sings his way through to the last goodbye. What a great idea! I eventually picked up a copy of the soundtrack, and have been waiting ever since for the opportunity to see the show performed live onstage. Finally, last weekend, at Santa Rosa's Sixth Street Playhouse, I saw The Last Five Years, directed by the great Ken Sonkin.

Boy, am I disappointed.

For one thing, the microphones used by the actors produced a mushy, unclear sound that made it hard to hear the lyrics, especially during the more up-tempo pieces like Jamie's opening song, "Shiksa Goddess," or the pivotal Christmas-time romp "The Schmuel Song." Lyrics this good deserve to be heard without so much effort on the part of the audience. While Jason Robert Brown's music—a lyrically dense blend of rock, pop, jazz and Broadway—is not easy to sing, it's not exactly Wagner, or even Stephen Sondheim.

At the performance I saw, Robert K. Dornaus III as Jamie was off-key at least a quarter of the time, and Alice Grindling, as Cathie, had some noticeable pitch issues that one assumes would have been worked out long ago. This is especially surprising given that the show, with the same cast and director, ran for several weeks last spring at the Sonoma County Repertory Theater. If this were the opening weekend of the show, a bit of musical unsteadiness could be forgiven, but after six weeks at the Rep (even factoring in a five-month hiatus), this stuff should be nailed down.

Those few pitch problems aside, Grindling is quite good, convincingly aching, hoping and falling in love with Jamie (in that order), as he becomes too famous for his insecure, less successful actress wife. For this material to work, for the marriage and its disintegration to be believable, both actors must convey equal portions of blame and complicity in the couple's relationship problems. The actors playing Jamie and Cathie must be well-balanced, which they are not in this production. If only Dornaus were as strong an actor as Grindling, the dramatic tension might be better balanced between the two characters.

As it stands, Grinding, a more experienced performer, seriously outmatches Dornaus, turning Cathie into a charismatic powerhouse who deserves much better than the flaky, lightweight creep who can't keep his dick in his pants that Dornaus portrays Jamie to be. To be fair, when Dornaus is on—as in his spot-on pantomime of a thrilled first-time writer signing books at a bookstore—he is quite entertaining.

Hardly a flop, the show, directed by the always masterful Ken Sonkin, is meticulously thought-out and beautifully staged, with a five-piece string and piano quintet under the capable direction of Lucas Sherman, gorgeously half-silhouetted at the rear of a set made of a few pieces of furniture and two windows, as simple and delicate as a haiku. If the show had sounded as good as it looked, I'd be recommending it more highly; as it stands, theater fans eager to see a valiant attempt at something different will appreciate what is being attempted. For everyone else, well, the original cast album is on sale everywhere.

'The Last Five Years' runs Friday&–Sunday through Dec. 1. Friday&–Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 2pm. Also, Nov. 15 and 29 at 8pm. Sixth Street Playhouse, 52 W. Sixth St., Santa Rosa. $14&–$30. 707.523.4185..

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