Â"The Last Five YearsÂ" for the Next Four Weeks: Invest In It, and It Will Reward You
A phenomenon in the musical theater world that occurred toward the end of the 20th century was the emergence of the Off-Broadway Song-Cycle Musical. That's a small-scale, small-cast show, with a newly-composed score by one composer, with its songs performed in theatrical situations, and with little or no dialogue. And almost none of the music functions as connecting material, or as transitional or "recitative" moments--it's a series of self-contained, full songs, of the kind that actors love to audition with. This type of show is somewhere in between a revue, a book musical and a concert. But suffice it to say that singing actors are required, and a theatrical performance style is employed, and the actors don't get much time offstage!
While the on-Broadway antecedents of this genre include such shows as Harvey Schmidt's "I Do! I Do!" and the first act of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Song and Dance" (originally presented separately in England as "Tell Me on a Sunday"), an early example of the off-Broadway genre is "Closer Than Ever," the 1989 musical composed by David Shire that some called a revue, but which didn't have the comedy sketches, pre-existing songs, writing teams or production numbers that that term used to imply. Some more recent examples of the genre are "First Lady Suite" and "Hello Again" (both dating from 1993), by Michael John LaChiusa, and "Songs for a New World" (1995) and "The Last Five Years" (2002) by Jason Robert Brown. These shows, an outgrowth of the post-Sondheim school of musical theater composition, and shaped by the lack of huge production budgets that other types of musicals now require, were designed to be performed by musical theater actors in theaters, with the music in service of that theatrical context.
However, "The Last Five Years," which actually had its world premiere at Skokie's Northlight Theatre in 2001, has a unique conceit at its heart. There are only two actors, playing a romantic couple. And the young woman, Catherine Hiatt, who starts off the proceedings, is depicted in reverse chronological order throughout the one-act show. We see her version of the end of the story first, and then every time we see her again, it is earlier in time. The young man, Jamie Wellerstein, alternates stage time with her, and proceeds from start to finish in normal chronological order. Their story-telling modes intersect in the middle of the one-act show, on their wedding day. And they only sing together at that moment. Got that?
This month, a modest production of this powerful but modest show is running on the weekends at Stage 773 in Lakeview, brought to us by a new Production Company, Another Production Company. The company was founded by Raymond K. Cleveland and Toma Tavares Langston, two men who cut their theatrical teeth in Chicago companies like Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre, and who serve as co-producers and co-directors for "The Last Five Years." And the show is in The Cab, the smallest of 773's performance spaces, running through October 5, 2012.
This production adds an element that the first productions of the show did not include--the romantic couple in question is not a Jewish man and a WASPish woman, but a Jewish man and an African-American woman. Rob Riddle plays Jamie as more yuppie than stereotypical Jew, and Dominique Reid plays Catherine as more unique and independent black woman than stereotypical black girl. So, their racial identities are different, but in ways that were not apparent when the off-Broadway cast was the semi-Jewish persona of Norbert Leo Butz and the very blonde presence of Sherrie Renee Scott.
Both of these young Chicago actors have marvelous voices. Reid, a recent graduate of Bradley University, at times reminded me of the young Dolly Parton in the way her voices quivers and floats in soft passages. She cuts a remarkably beautiful figure in her creamy, dreamy wedding gown, too. Riddle, who finished a master's degree at Southern Illinois University in 2010, is a thoroughly competent pop singer and a handsome, engaging presence. Both actors change costumes (a lot of costumes!) with aplomb, and look good in anything, apparently!
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Paul W. Thompson, a contributor to BroadwayWorld.com since 2007, is a Chicago-based singer, actor, musical director, pianist, vocal coach, composer and commentator. His career as a performer, teacher and writer is centered at Paul W. Thompson Music, located in Chicagoâ€™s historic Fine Arts Building, where he teaches the great songs of Broadway to the next generation of musical theater performers. A native of Nashville, Tennessee, Paul was raised in a family of professional musicians and teachers, steeped in classical, gospel, country, pop, sacred and show music. Dubbed a â€śthin, winsome ladâ€ť at the age of 13 by a critic for the Nashville Banner, he earned two degrees in musical theater (a B.F.A. with Honors from Baylor University and an M.M. from the University of Miami, Florida), plus an M.B.A. with Distinction from DePaul University. Paulâ€™s memberships include Actorsâ€™ Equity Association, the American Guild of Musical Artists, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (proud voter for the Grammy Awards!), the National Association of Teachers of Singing and New Yorkâ€™s Drama League.|
Moving easily between the worlds of classical music, religious music, classic pop and musical theater, Paul has appeared onstage or in the orchestra pit in concerts, musicals, operettas and operas in 30 states and in Europe, in a career spanning more than 35 years. His Chicagoland stage credits include â€śForever Plaidâ€ť at the Royal George Theater and twenty mainstage productions at Light Opera Works. Paul joined the Chicago Symphony Chorus in 1995 (he was Tenor I Section Leader for four years and sings on two Grammy-winning recordings), and is one of Chicagoâ€™s foremost liturgical singers, marking 20 years as a member of the choir at St. James Cathedral (Episcopal) in 2011.He has composed and arranged a number of anthems, hymns and songs for worship and concert use, and collaborates on the creation of new works of musical theater. Paul can be found on Monday nights watching showtune videos at the world-famous Sidetrack nightclub, the inspiration for his weekly column, â€śThe Showtune Mosh Pit.â€ť His proudest achievement is that he has seen the original Broadway production of every Tony Award-winning Best Musical since â€śCats.â€ť No, really. Since â€śCats!â€ť
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