There is a song in The Last Five Years titled, “I Can Do Better Than That” and if The Montgomery Playhouse & Theatre @ CBT want to fill the seats, Producers David Jones and Elizabeth Weiss really need to do better. To ad lib a line from Mel Brooks, “What they did to Jason Robert Brown, Booth did to Lincoln.” When you put up a show with only two actors and music by JRB you need to make sure that your actors and Musical Director are up to the task. Instead of sending out an audition announcement, someone made the decision to precast this production. (In fact, their website still lists auditions for a show that closed in May.) That was a major mistake but answered so many other questions I had about the show. There were some stand out moments, but for the most part the production fell flat. Heavy is the head that wears the crown of Producer.
Jones and Weiss not only produced the show but also doubled as Set Designer and Costumer. Jones’ set was unimaginative and littered. It looked like a frat house after a kegger. There were cubes and blocks randomly placed about the stage. Not sure for what Jones intended their use to be but it appeared that they only provided obstacles around which the actors maneuvered. Seeing how the entire show does not take place in New York, the static city outline did not need to take up the length of the stage. Elizabeth Weiss is to costumers as Theodor Geisel is to doctors. Aside from the shirt and pants that each character wore, she put on a sweater and changed shoes and he donned a windbreaker and took off his shoes. The climatic “The Next Ten Minutes” was very disappointing. It is the one and only time in the show where the two characters are together. Catherine arrives at the altar in a beautiful wedding gown as the two of them proclaim their undying love for each other. Yeah, that didn’t happen. Even on a limited budget, if nothing else, a costumer should ensure that cast members are wearing the proper clothing and check them before they go on stage. During Jamie’s first number I noticed a spot about the size of a fifty-cent piece on his shirt. Since it was a Columbia University shirt I figured that Weiss opted for Jamie’s education over neatness. As the show progressed it became obvious that he was sweating, and the spot kept growing and growing to the point where it now covered over 1/3 of the shirt front and back. Something a proper undergarment may have prevented?
Lighting Designer Joy Wyne came up with a nice design for that setting. Her heavy use of blues was a bit much and caused the stage to be dark most of the time but overall it worked. Wyne’s use of specials to highlight bigger moments were nice and would have been more effective had the actors been able to hit their marks on a regular basis. There were times when it appeared that Wyne brought up a light a little early for the actor as to guide them. Perhaps the actors would have had an easier time hitting their marks had they not had boxes and flats to navigate.
Lauren-Nicole Gabel (Catherine Hiatt) and Matthew Ratz (Jamie Wellerstein) have a difficult task from the beginning. First, as the only two performers the entire show is on their shoulders. Since there is no dialog they must nail the singing and have chemistry between them. Secondly, they were both miscast, however they both shine at times. Gabel has a beautiful voice, and anyone would pay handsomely to have her sing at their wedding. Her acting is expressive, and she is clearly comfortable on stage. The one thing that she did not display is a belt. Any female lead in a Jason Robert Brown even little Patrice in 13 the Musical, must let it rip. This in no way takes from her ability as a singer or actor she was just in the wrong role for her. Matthew Ratz is another talent that is the product of poor casting. Ratz puts his heart and soul in to this production. He bounces around the stage like a kid on Christmas. You can tell that he is in love and oh so enjoying life. Again, when you are involved with a show that is completely sung, you must sell your audience by your tone and expression, and Ratz is amazing when it comes to this. The downside is Ratz is a baritone in a tenor role. Whenever he had to venture above the staff he went into his head voice and anything above that was falsetto. Kudos to both Gabel and Ratz for boldly going beyond their comfort zone.
It is common place in theatre to overlook a director after tech week. Their work is done, and things have been turned over to the stage manager. It usually isn’t until the director later receives an award or nomination for the work that they are recognized. Director David Dossey needs to be recognized now for his work with this show. After leaving New England in 1997 Bill Parcells said ”It’s just like a friend of mine told me, ‘If they want you to cook the dinner, at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries.’ ” For a man without a shopping list Dossey did well. He got the most out of his actors and the space that he possibly could. My hat is off to him.
Without a doubt the stars of the evening were the orchestra (Matt Horanzy – guitar, Audrey Chang – violin, Carol Anne Bosco – cello) with Music Director Paige Rammelkamp shining the brightest among them. It’s worth mentioning again that one does not simply waltz through a Jason Robert Brown score. There is an old expression that you can’t squeeze blood from a turnip. Rammelkamp meets the challenge head on and squeezes every bit out of her cast. She brought her cast to a place that was vocally challenging and got them to a point where the performance was serviceable. If there is an open call for The Fantasticks this winter at Little Theatre of Alexandria, I can’t wait to see what she does with a group appropriately cast. She did a phenomenal job with this show and deserves all the praise garnered.
Overall the show seemed forced. Someone or a group of people somewhere decided that this was the show that they were going to do, and these were the people who where going to perform. Not the best of decisions because it limited or boxed-in some people and didn’t allow others to showcase their talents. I would love to see Gabel and Ratz in a production that better fits their skill set. For as good as Dossey and Rammelkamp were, imagine what could have been if they weren’t handcuffed.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
The Last Five Years plays through September 23, 2018 as a co-production with The Montgomery Playhouse and Theatre @ CBT at the Randolph Road Theatre— 4010 Randolph Road in Silver Spring, MD. Tickets are available for purchase at the door or in advance online.