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The Last Five Years

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I'm tempted to say that I don't like Jason Robert Brown's musical The Last Five Years because, outside of Brown, I don't want to encourage people to think that their lives would make good plays.

Not, of course, that people need encouragement. Over the years I've served as a reader/judge on many, many new play festivals and contests, which mostly means reading plays by people who believe their lives so interesting, and their talent so immense, that the literate world is breathlessly waiting for them to use the latter to relate the former.

And, people, like that is why I have these bags under my eyes.

But Brown's a different story. After winning the Tony award in 1998 (at 28! for his musical Parade) his next project was The Last Five Years, a fictionalized retelling of his first marriage. We meet the young couple, go through their courtship and wedding, then follow their disintegration and dissolution.

That's all the plot there is. And most of the neophytes mentioned above would have written it up (and did) with little insight and even less originality. Brown, however, brings not only his remarkable talent as composer/lyricist, but an extraordinary theatrical sense as well: You may be watching the oldest story in the book, but you're watching one of its freshest iterations.

The most obvious feature of the play is Brown's schematic: The man plays out the relationship from exciting beginning to excruciating end. At the same time, the woman begins at the end and plots the relationship backward until her last scene is her first meeting with the man. The only time the two are in the same scene at the same time is the middle of the play ... their wedding day.

To this structural marvel add Brown's ability to write expressive and decidedly contemporary music, and the enormous humanity with which he infuses the characters, and the result is the expertly crafted and deeply moving The Last Five Years. (And as a side note to everyone who's not Brown -- your life won't make a good play, don't even try.)

The other big news is the production presented by Off the Wall Theater, a new company in Washington, Pa. I'd never been there before and was pleasantly surprised by the whole experience. The space is a handsome and intimate, though roomy, proscenium stage, and I'm happy to report that the show was sold out. According to founders Virginia Wall Gruenert and Hans Gruenert, Washington has embraced the theater to such an extent that the company is moving to semi-pro status beginning next season and the employment of Equity actors.

In Washington County ... who knew?

But back to Five Years. Veteran director Mark A. Calla leads the show with his customary intelligence and theatricality. In the best sense, this show is a learning experience for the company (it's Off the Wall's first musical), and the two talented and enthusiastic performers, Laura Paterra and Nick Bell. These are very demanding roles for any actors, and it's exciting to watch Calla help Paterra and Bell grow into the emotional footprint of the characters and work to meet the challenge of Brown's score.

There's a few bugs to be worked out -- I can't imagine why you'd need to amplify the voices and the wonderful pit band in this small space, and the spotlight is a continual distraction -- but it's early still in Off the Wall's game. I look forward to many return trips.

 

The Last Five Years continues through July 20. Off the Wall Theater, 147 North Main St., Washington, Pa. 724-873-3576 or www.insideoffthewall.com

Take five: Nick Bell and Laura Paterra in Off the Wall Theater's The Last Five Years. - PHOTO COURTESY OF OFF THE WALL THEATER.
  • Photo courtesy of Off the Wall Theater.
  • Take five: Nick Bell and Laura Paterra in Off the Wall Theater's The Last Five Years.

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