The Last Five Years (Short North Stage – Columbus, OH)

The Last Five Years is one of those rare musicals that has achieved major popularity without hitting Broadway, its status cemented by an excellent cast recording of its brief 2002 off-Broadway run. The show was revived off-Broadway in 2013 and adapted into a film in 2015, and it continues to have a healthy life in licensing across the country in regional and community theatres. Now it is time for Columbus’ own Short North Stage to present the show, replacing the previously announced The Flick in their season schedule. This production is a great example of how so many quite good elements can combine to result in something that just doesn’t quite deliver in a way one should expect from a show of this stature.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Melissa Hall (Catherine) and Jarrad Biron Green (Jamie)
 
Jason Robert Brown’s ode to a relationship between two people from their initial blush of attraction to the sputtering embers of their separation is reportedly autobiographical, borrowing major elements from his first marriage. It is a sung-through piece with the leads, Catherine and Jamie, singing alternating songs; Catherine’s story is told in reverse chronological order while Jamie’s starts at the beginning. Seating is arranged on The Garden Theatre stage on opposite sides of the action; this allows for the audience to be quite close to the performers, but it also drastically limits seating capacity. 

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Jarrad Biron Green (Jamie) and Melissa Hall (Catherine)
 
There is no fault to be found in the singing abilities of Melissa Hall as Catherine or Jarrad Biron Green as Jamie; these two sound terrific, especially in their one duet, “The Next Ten Minutes,” which closes the first act. Music director Andrew Willis summons clean and full-sounding instrumentals from his small ensemble, and Edward Carignan’s set helps create a certain kind of mood necessary for this piece; a rotating platform maneuvered by the cast becomes a bridge as well as many other things with a pool of standing water and some plants in the rear, and a park bench is opposite it framed by long drapes. Sophia Gersing’s animated art for “The Schmuel Song” brings to mind a similar use of animation in the film version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch; the use of limited animation was a delightful part of that film just as it is a welcome addition here. The sound design is a bit off in this environment as the voices of the actors always come from the far left or right depending on which side of the stage you are seated; this is quite disconcerting whenever the performers sing downstage as their voices are amplified coming from the opposite direction. Still, the orchestra sounds quite crisp and full, only occasionally drowning out Mr. Green’s singing. The lighting, while often quite beautiful, also appears a bit off as Mr. Green is illuminated in one scene from just his chest down; another scene shows Ms. Hall with a hard light bisecting her forehead, leaving her hair and the top of her head in darkness. 

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Jarrad Biron Green (Jamie) – Art by Sophia Gersing
 
The main issue I have with this production is that it is acted without the arc written into the material. With the structure of the show being what it is and being sung through, it could seem easy to pull off with limited means when in fact it probably puts more stress on the performers to act more in their singing. We should see Catherine go from being a broken woman (“Still Hurting”) to incredibly optimistic (“Goodbye Until Tomorrow”) as well as seeing Jamie transform from an ambitious author who just met Catherine and is excited (“Shiksa Goddess”) to a philandering husband who leaves her (“I Could Never Rescue You”). In lieu of this, director Nick Lingnofski gives us a Catherine who always looks like someone just stole her puppy and a Jamie who remains a narcissistic jerk throughout (he sneers out some of “Moving Too Fast,” making some of the words unintelligible). It’s difficult to hit any real emotional depth when neither character seems like they are playing with a full deck, making their one duet sound great but feel empty. It is difficult to believe that this Catherine would ever have found anything to like in this Jamie, who from his entrance appears like he wants to flip off the audience. 

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Melissa Hall (Catherine)
 

The Last Five Years is alternately depressing as well as hopeful, and its score is full of gems that are relatable to most anyone who has ever been in a relationship on rocky ground. While this production didn’t get to me in my gut like other productions I’ve seen of this work, it is far from being terrible. Hearing this score live bests listening to a recording of it any day, and being seated so close to the performers only adds to the experience. While I had hoped for a deeper emotional connection this time around, Short North Stage’s The Last Five Years is pleasant enough even if it misses the bull’s-eye.

**/ out of ****

The Last Five Years continues through to May 22nd in The Garden Theatre located at 1187 North High Street in Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.shortnorthstage.org/calendar/v/535

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A View from the Bridge (Gallery Players – Columbus, OH)

 

Leave it to Arthur Miller to tackle the kind of deep topics that would’ve been impossible to discuss openly in the repressive 1950s. First performed with another one-act play in 1955 on Broadway that closed after only a few months, Miller’s A View from the Bridge was revised and expanded to two acts, eventually finding success in productions staged in England as well as in the form of several Broadway revivals; now this important piece about immigration and the perils of too much love is being presented by Gallery Players with a talented cast in a production that is largely successful.

 

Photo: Jared Saltman – (left to right) Sonda Staley (Beatrice), Eliya Smith (Catherine), Mike Writtenberry (Rodolpho), Brian A. Palmer (Marco), and Richard Napoli (Eddie)
 

A View from the Bridge takes place in the 1950s within the Brooklyn apartment of the Carbones, an Italian family made up of Eddie, a longshoreman; his wife, Beatrice; and their orphaned niece, Catherine, a teenager. Eddie has specific ideas about the kind of life he wants for his niece, his affection for her causing alienation between him and his wife. The situation only grows more complicated when cousins of his wife, the brothers Marco and Rodolpho, arrive to stay with them as illegal immigrants. As Rodolpho and Catherine’s friendship grows, Eddie’s concern for his niece’s well-being only grows, generating a series of outbursts that affect not only the lives of those in his household but the whole community.

 

Photo: Jared Saltman – (left to right) Brian A. Palmer (Marco) and Richard Napoli (Eddie)
 
Standouts in the cast are Richard Napoli as the hard-working but troubled Eddie; Mike Writtenberry as Rodolpho, the immigrant from Italy; Brian A. Palmer as Marco, Rodolpho’s imposing brother; Eliya Smith as Catherine, the innocent teen; and, last but not least, Sonda Staley as Beatrice, Eddie’s ignored wife. Mr. Napoli, sounding a bit like Stallone in Rocky, is excellent at making his point known using the script as written with its veiled allusions to homosexuality; this type of writing demands someone with the proper swagger and demeanor to pull it off with a modern audience used to far more explicit and direct works, and Mr. Napoli fits that bill. Mr. Writtenberry holds firm to his accent and expressive mannerisms as Rodolpho, perfectly demonstrating the kind of behavior that riles Eddie; their “boxing match” (choreographed by Ryan Metzger) is intense and squirm-inducing. Mr. Palmer doesn’t have a lot to say as Marco, but that’s because there is no need; his imposing stature and use of silence and a stare says more than enough. Ms. Smith as first seems too naive to be a girl on the cusp of adulthood, but that is precisely the point; her youthful energy grows into a woman’s resolve through this performance, even though her slip is still showing along her hemline throughout. Ms. Staley has a matter-of-factness as Beatrice that makes her performance all the more touching in the scene with Ms. Smith where she gently lets her know that it is time for her to grow up; when she asks her husband, “When am I gonna be your wife again?” one can feel her loneliness. Ms. Staley can only be faulted for her lackluster sweeping skills, an ability that surely would be second nature to a housewife of this era.

 

Photo: Jared Saltman – Richard Napoli (Eddie) and Sonda Staley (Beatrice)
 
Director Nancy Williams guides this production with a firm understanding of the material and at a pace that ensures no moment out stays its welcome. Ms. Williams missteps with her choice of underscoring music for two pivotal scenes in the second act; the music during the raid sounds like a scene out of The Maltese Falcon, and the violent attack at the end sounds like the rumble in West Side Story. The rest of the music in this production is well-placed and appropriate, so why have these two scenes play out with such obvious cues that dissolve the tension in their respective scenes? It’s almost as if the director doesn’t trust her talented cast to carry these moments on their own. Another unfortunate decision is casting Nick Baldasare as Alfieri, the lawyer and narrator of the story. Mr. Baldasare cuts a handsome frame, but his vocal modulation and speed make quite a bit of what he says unintelligible even though he is quite loud.

 

Photo: Jared Saltman – Eliya Smith (Catherine) and Richard Napoli (Eddie)
 

A View from the Bridge is absorbing theatre, and even with some notable flaws this production is worthwhile. There is a kind of palpable charm that comes through in the material and time period that is inviting and even a bit dangerous. This is the kind of play that can speak to empty nesters as well as anyone who has ties to family that can prove to be harmful if not properly nurtured and checked.

*** out of ****

A View from the Bridge continues through to May 22nd in the Roth-Resler Theater at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Columbus located at 1125 College Avenue, and more information can be found at http://columbusjcc.org/cultural-arts/gallery-players/

Brighton Beach Memoirs (Gallery Players – Columbus, OH)

Growing up is so awful that it’s a good thing we have to go through it only once. The process is only seen as poignant in retrospect, as the pain and embarrassment is easier to overlook in the rearview mirror. Gallery Players is now presenting Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical tale of youth, Brighton Beach Memoirs, as the opening show of their 67th season, and adolescence has really been depicted so candidly – or as endearingly funny.

Brighton Beach Memoirs premiered on Broadway in 1983 and was a hit, running over three years, and was then adapted into a rather stale and miscast film in 1986. The play takes place in Brooklyn in the fall of 1937 during The Great Depression and is about the Jerome household, a Jewish family encompassing Kate and Jack Jerome; their two sons, Eugene and Stanley; Kate’s widowed sister, Blanche; and Blanche’s two daughters, Nora and Laurie. Most of the action revolves around Eugene Morris Jerome, a fifteen-year-old who is dealing with puberty and the ever-changing struggles of those around him, covering situations as diverse as unemployment, death, love, and decades-old grudges that finally come to the fore.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Neil Kalef (Eugene)
 
This play can only work with a Eugene that is of the right age and able to have frank discussions about sex and the difficult changes boys go through at that age; this production has Neil Kalef in the role, who is just the right age, has the slightly sour attitude commiserate with being ignored by his family, and is free from embarrassment saying lines that would make most teens blush and look away. Mr. Kalef is utterly believable as Eugene, and his asides to the audience are as honest as they are funny.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Susan Gellman (Blanche), Felise Chernoff (Kate), and Jenna Rodier (Laurie)
 
There isn’t a bad performance in the play, but special credit should also go to Susan Gellman as Blanche, Jennifer Geiger as Nora, and Rick A. Holt as Jack. Ms. Gellman plays rather meek and withdrawn extremely well, and her transition to being a stronger parent and more assertive in taking control of her and her daughters’ lives is revelatory; she’s heartbreaking while reading a letter from a potential suitor, and the scene she shares with Ms. Geiger in which she finally takes charge as a mother is electrifying. Ms. Geiger as her daughter Nora is present and reacts naturally to everything around her; she’s believably excited at the prospect of a career on Broadway and firmly stubborn to get her way.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Rick A. Holt (Jack)
 
Rick A. Holt is extremely strong as Jack, the patriarch of the family, always the one sought out for advice and working several jobs to make ends meet. Mr. Holt has a brassy swiftness about him that makes Jack both intimidating to his family as well as the kind of guy you know they want to please. When he tells his son Stanley (Phil Cunningham, who is just right as the ne’er-do-well oldest son, and whose scenes with Mr. Kalef as his younger brother Eugene work because of their chemistry) that there is nothing that Stanley could do that he as his father couldn’t forgive him for, it’s enough to make you wish that every father was as honest and direct as Mr. Holt is as Jack. Felise Chernoff as his wife Kate is no slouch either, perfect as the nagging mother whose demeanor contrasts with the love she obviously feels for her family. Ms. Chernoff had more than her share of stumbles during the opening night performance, but I’m sure that had more to do with nerves than any lack of talent or preparation.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Neil Kalef (Eugene), Jenna Rodier (Laurie), Felise Chernoff (Kate), Jennifer Geiger (Nora), and Susan Gellman (Blanche)
 
Set designer Jon Baggs has created a set that qualifies it as another character in the play, complete with a living and dining room and stairs leading to a second level where the brothers and their cousins share separate rooms. It looks like people really live there, and such care has been taken to make it appear functional and appropriately period. Director Mark Mann keeps things moving and making sense, not allowing any scene to bake too long; he really gets the point of the play and understands how to make the actors work together as a family.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Phil Cunningham (Stanley), Susan Gellman (Blanche), Rick A. Holt (Jack), Felise Chernoff (Kate), Jenna Rodier (Laurie), and Jennifer Geiger (Nora)
 
You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy this production, and I enjoyed learning a bit about the culture. Most everyone will recognize characteristics of people in the play as being similar to some people in their own family, and there are definitely scenes that any male will understand and probably smile about to themselves. Some of the dialogue and situations may keep Brighton Beach Memoirs from being suitable to anyone under the age of thirteen, but boy would having seen this play at that age have helped me realize that I wasn’t the only one dealing with such issues.

***/ out of ****

Brighton Beach Memoirs continues through to November 1st in the Roth-Resler Theater at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Columbus located at 1125 College Avenue, and more information can be found at http://columbusjcc.org/cultural-arts/gallery-players/