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The Last Five Years at Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
for the Alexandria Times
April 8, 2013 

Jamie (James Gardiner) and Cathy (Erin Weaver) share a tender moment.  Photo: Teresa Wood

Jamie (James Gardiner) and Cathy (Erin Weaver) share a tender moment. Photo: Teresa Wood

Being a theater critic is not always the best way to enjoy a show.  I’m not a typical audience member out for a spot of entertainment.  Scribbling furiously in the dark I analyze each scene, each song, each performer.  Sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint why I am not moved, not amused, not inspired.  In Signature Theatre’s The Last Five Years the acting and singing are exemplary.  The set design and lighting inspired – the dialogue lively or suitably dramatic, depending on the scene.  There is nothing “wrong” with this show.  So why does it feel flat?

Well, it’s complicated, in this case as complicated as the plot which jumps from early courtship to their breakup for our hero Jamie, and takes the opposite route for our heroine Cathy, occasionally meeting in the middle for a duet.  Known as a “song cycle”, the music by Jason Robert Brown, tells the story of an aspiring actress and a recently published writer who attempt to keep their love alive while pursuing their individual careers in different cities.  That is to say when they aren’t living in the same city where he is enjoying success and temptations of the female variety, while she spends her days going on cattle calls in hopes of landing a part.

It is certainly not because actors Erin Weaver, whom we recently adored in Signature’s production of Xanadu, and James Gardiner, a local favorite we are soon to see in Signature’s upcoming productions of Company and Miss Saigon aren’t right for their roles.  They both have wonderful voices and a keen sense of comic timing.  Gardiner’s sense of physical comedy is especially noteworthy in the number “The Schmuel Song” about a Jewish tailor who sews 41 dreams into his wife’s velvet dress.  And Weaver shines in “A Summer in Ohio” a Cole Porteresque tune that lists all the things that are worse than waiting for his return.  “I could get a root canal in hell!” she croons, though she follows that with the line, “The torture is just exquisite while I’m waiting for you.” You see the dichotomy of her emotions.

Cathy (Erin Weaver) settles into her relationship with Jamie . Photo: Teresa Wood

Cathy (Erin Weaver) settles into her relationship with Jamie . Photo: Teresa Wood

It cannot be that Director Aaron Posner, the recipient of three Helen Hayes Awards and two Barrymore Awards, all of a sudden knows nothing of direction or that playwright Brown who has composed four major musicals and won countless awards doesn’t write his tail off with songs that are complete, emotionally solid and melodic.  No, no it’s not the music, that’s the issue here, but a human connection that goes missing.  The je ne sais quoi moment that reaches deep into your soul and tears out a piece you’d be glad to offer up, if only it were needed.  It’s the part that’s not in the script, not in the songs, not in the staging.  Because you really did come for that emotional ride – to believe – to buy into the moment – but sometimes the magic isn’t there. 

The story is written to showcase Brown’s songs and the script is the device to string it together rather than the other way round – a construct originating with Beethoven and popular today in the TV shows “Smash” and “Nashville” which center around the music rather than the story.  If you are ready to let it come at you as an evening of music, rather than a backwards forwards plot chronicling the perils of young love played out in two cities, you’ll be better prepared to enjoy its pleasures.

Through April 28th 2013 at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.

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