Reviewed by Lee Shepherd
What a sad and poignant story is The Last Five Years, staged by SRO Productions III for the past two weekends at the Schorr Family Firehouse Stage in Johnson City. The story – the romance, marriage and break-up of two folks who move New York City to make their fame and fortune as a writer and actress — is revealed during key points in their relationship, via song.
As with an opera, the singing is constant in this Jason Robert Brown show, with little or no dialogue, a musically exhausting marathon for the two singers to pull off.
And pull it off, they did. As the cleverly written story progresses, he starts five years in the past, exhilarated by new romance and progresses to the cold-hard-facts present. She starts in the here and now, disillusioned and heart-broken, and tells the story backward to the time the starry-eyed couple met.
Jamie, played by Andrew Simek, succeeds as a best-selling author, while Cathy, played by Jess Brookes, fails as an actress. The relationship founders–as one career soars to the top, and one never gets off the ground.
Simek is a terrific actor, with a versatile and compelling voice to match. His songs are high points in the show – especially “The Schmuel Song,” the “Shiksa Goddess Song” and the utterly heart-breaking “If I Didn’t Believe in You.”
While Brookes has some comic moments in the “Climbing Uphill/Audition Sequence” and the “The Summer in Ohio” song, her depiction of Cathy is one-dimensional. There’s little depth of character needed to make listeners feel empathy for her, as you do for Jamie. Understandably, she doesn’t want to live in the shadow of a successful husband, but she comes off primarily as jealous and mean-spirited. Brookes has two singing levels, loud and TOO LOUD. Her microphone should have been turned down, but even with less amplification, there’s too much shrill in her voice.
Great applause for musicians, playing some of the most difficult licks ever written for a pit orchestra. The unusual scoring is for two cellos, bass, piano and violin, played by Vicky Gordon (piano), Ruth Fisher and Andy Chadwick (cellos), Douglas Diegert (violin) and Beth Bartlett (upright and electric bass), and they’re all to be commended. The musicians all come from classical backgrounds, yet are adaptable enough to switch on a dime into jazz, pop music, country, Klezmer, and rock ‘n’ roll.
Hats off to SRO and director Scott Fisher, for tackling a show that falls well beyond the bounds of traditional musical theater. The final performance is at 2 p.m. today (May 3) at the Goodwill Theatre, 46-48 Willow St., Johnson City. Tickets are $20; call 800-838-3006 or visit sroproductionsonline.com.