by Lisa Traiger
With as much intrigue backstage as onstage, The Last Five Years returns to the region in a smart, attractive production at Arlington’s Signature Theatre. The work, directed by D.C.’s Aaron Posner, is a last-minute replacement for the previously scheduled Crimes of the Heart after two actors bowed out. A compact, chamber-sized piece like Jason Robert Brown’s Five Years proved to be the quick fix the theater needed. In just over three weeks the show, starring James Gardiner and Erin Weaver, is on the boards and running in Signature’s MAX Theatre through April 28.
But that’s not all. Brown wrote the 14-song work on the heels of his failed first marriage to an aspiring actress. When the show debuted back in 2001, his former wife threatened to sue stating that the character Cathy Hiatt too closely resembled her. Brown, who also has written the turbulent teen musical 13; the historical Parade, based on the lynching of Leo Frank; and the anthemic cycle Songs for a New World, dashed off a few quick rewrites and set the play on its way. It’s developed a cult following in the decade since its brief off-Broadway premiere in 2002 and a current production is in a limited off-Broadway run, directed by the writer.
The snapshot of a relationship, told moving forward starting at the first meeting through final goodbyes from the perspective of an eager young novelist, Jamie Wellerstein, and in reverse from breakup to first hellos by Cathy Hiatt, the 90-minute intermissionless production never fully gels as a musical.
But in Posner’s able hands Signature’s production offers many rewards. Among them a pair of top-notch performances by Signature regular James Gardiner and Erin Weaver who mine the highs and lows of love as they navigate an ultimately doomed relationship. Gardiner, a fireball of energy, with a rubbery face and an impeccable voice, is easy to like as Jamie, especially as we watch him become giddy, his star on the rise on the literary circuit: a first novel at 23, excerpted in the redoubtable Atlantic Monthly, a second novel reviewed in The New York Times. Who wouldn’t be happy for him?
Weaver as Cathy is his foil, a wide-eyed transplant to the urban jungle of New York. Here she’s a Barbie blonde who favors jeans and cardigans. We ache for her insecurities – her interior thoughts are revealed by a sung-through monolgue during an audition: “Why does this pianist hate me? Why did I wear these shoes?” It lifts the veil on her doubts and how her partner’s confidence eclipses hers. She’s harder to like, though, because we meet her as she’s already been derailed in the relationship – kind of like getting the bad news first.
The pretty blonde look, though, is perfect for Gardiner’s first winning number, “Shiksa Goddess,” a witty bit that tweaks the insatiable desire some Jewish men have for non-Jewish women: “I’m breaking my mother’s heart/The JCC of Spring Valley is shaking… . And my grandfather’s rolling in his grave.” Later, he serenades Cathy with “The Schmuel Song,” a rollicking number about an old tailor, with Yiddish accents, magical clocks and a sundry of other shticks. Weaver, too, has a chance to show both her vulnerability and her impressive belt, right off the bat in her heartbreaking lament, “Still Hurting,” then later in the hopeful “I Can Do Better Than That.”
The musical ensemble directed by pianist William Yanesh features strings, including a pair of cellos, violin, guitar and bass. Playing behind a scrim, they provide rich and fulsome accompaniment throughout. Scenic designer Daniel Conway keeps the stage relatively spare, and thankfully the MAX is spacious enough that the performers don’t need to push scenery around the stage; a bed, a desk and a few platforms are serviceable and attractive. Hanging above from the lighting grid is Conway’s piece de resistance, a white swirl of manuscript pages and clocks that suggest the forward and backward passage of time, of course, and the material Jamie is writing. Like a cake topper for a wedding cake, it gives the piece artistic weight.
It’s no surprise that The Last Five Years looks and plays so beautifully in a theater like Signature, which has the resources to make even a small show look lush. So often this piece is seen as little and easy (meaning cheap) for a small theater to tackle. But here, well-thought-out design, a pair of excellently cast and talented performers, a fine string ensemble to back them up and visually intriguing design elements make this a near-perfect evening at the theater. That the work was created under a time crunch, though beside the point, makes it all the more noteworthy.
Even if you’ve seen The Last Five Years, Signature’s production won’t disappoint.
The Last Five Years is onstage through April 28 at the MAX Theatre, Signature Theatre, in Arlington. Tickets, $40 and up, are available by calling 703-820-9771 or at www.signature-theatre.org.