Jamie and Cathy were always on parallel paths. He was from a traditional Jewish family. She was a free spirit. He was a successful writer. She was a struggling actress. As his career soared, hers bottomed out. It was a love doomed to fail. See their story in The Last Five Years currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.
Stunning. Simply stunning.
Every now and again, one comes upon a piece of theatrical kismet. The story is just right. You have the right performers. You have the right director. The music is just right. The needed intangibles are in place. And the end result is something almost transcendent. The Playhouse’s production of The Last Five Years is one of those shows.
Jason Robert Brown has worked an impressive piece of magic with his story and score. The framing device of telling the two characters’ stories simultaneously, but oppositely (Jamie’s story is told from beginning to end while Cathy’s story is told from end to beginning) is an inspired touch. He has also written a moving tale that grabs your soul from the start and doesn’t let up until the final note is sung. And his score? Wow! Nothing but a slate of memorable tunes that are touching, funny and, at times, painful. Stylistically, the show is similar to an Andrew Lloyd Webber production as very little dialogue is utilized. The story is operatic and told almost entirely in song.
Susie Baer-Collins returns to the Playhouse to direct and does a superlative job with the production. Her staging was original and truthful to the story. Taking advantage of social distancing, Baer-Collins always makes sure there’s a space between the performers, but that’s critical to the story because there is always something keeping Jamie and Cathy apart. Her coaching of the two thespians is epic as their performances are spot on and nuanced. No emotional moment is missed or wasted. No note is off key. And the show’s emotional trek is precise and gripping.
The theatre could barely contain the energy of Bailey Carlson. She was a dynamo and had my attention riveted from the moment she uttered the first notes of “Still Hurting”. Her animation was off the charts and always apropos to the emotional beats of her songs. Her Cathy begins as an angry woman who refuses to accept any responsibility in the dissolution of her marriage, but as her story winds to the beginning, we get to see that she was once a fun loving, if high spirited gal. Yet there was always an edge of jealousy to her personality as she wanted her own success and refused to be seen, in her own mind, as lesser than her “genius” husband which explains her obsession with becoming a big star.
Carlson also possesses a knockout alto that captured the subtlest emotion or overwhelmed you with its strength. If she wasn’t wowing you with her anger and sadness in numbers like “Still Hurting” and “See I’m Smiling”, she was making you laugh with “A Summer in Ohio” or just getting you to remember the bloom of first love with “Goodbye Until Tomorrow”.
I personally considered Thomas Gjere’s performance as Jamie his best to date and I was glad to see him play a bit against type as I’ve normally seen him in more unsympathetic roles. His take on Jamie is complete and utter perfection. His childlike glee when his Jamie gains a powerful literary agent is infectious and delightful and his love for Cathy is palpable and real. Seeing him collapse emotionally as his marriage crumbles melts even the coldest of hearts and it allows the audience to understand, if not necessarily agree with or condone some of his poor personal responses to his failing nuptials.
Gjere has got one, smooth mellow tenor which he harnessed to full potential as he made the audience laugh with “Shiksa Goddess” where he professes his love for Cathy while shocking his mother at the same time. He also shines in favorite number, “The Schmuel Song”, where he tries to inspire Cathy with a story. Yet he can also reduce your innards to pulp as he tries to shore up Cathy’s confidence while telling her he won’t fail to make her feel better in “If I Didn’t Believe in You” and will crush you with his tragic “I Could Never Rescue You”.
Jim Othuse supplies some scenic prestidigitation with a simple set of stairs, a boat and a few pieces of furniture that effortlessly slide in and out to set up scenes. I was bowled over by Janet Morr’s artistry on the seaside set, especially by the rolling waves which was furthered enhanced by the sea sounds supplied by John Gibilisco and Tim Burkhart. Michelle Garrity’s choreography was simple, yet effective and made good use of social distancing. I loved the emotional coloring of Lindsay Pape’s costumes. When the characters are at their happiest, their clothes are the brightest. At their saddest, they wear mournful black. Jim Boggess and his mighty orchestra nail the score to the floor.
At the beginning, there was an ending. At the ending, there was a beginning. But, for me, it was one of the most personally satisfying shows I’ve seen in a spell and you need to get a ticket and experience it for yourselves.
The Last Five Years plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through March 21. Showtimes are Wed-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets begin at $25 and may be purchased at the OCP Box Office, by phone at (402) 553-0800 or online at OmahaPlayhouse.com. The show will also be available via streaming starting March 5 via the ShowTix4U platform. Due to adult language, the show is not recommended for children. The Omaha Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.
Photo provided by Robertson Photography