Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Last Five Years' glows in Manitowoc

University of Wisconsin-Manitowoc Theatre

MANITOWOC, Wis. - Very cool.

That would be Jason Robert Brown’s “The Last Five Years” – the story of the searing effects of blazing glory – and University of Wisconsin-Manitowoc Theatre’s distinctive production of the musical.

UW-Manitowoc is a two-year campus that blends student and community effort in its theatrical productions. Especially interesting for “The Last Five Years” is the director is a student, Hannah Otto. She and the performers and creative team go exploring with engaging results. The result is a fine achievement.

***

Creative: Book, music, lyrics – Jason Robert Brown; director – Hannah Otto; scenic design – Frank Salzberg; lighting design – Brennan Hyler; costume design – Claran LaViolette; sound design – Jeff LaFond; stage manager – Michael Sheeks (who heads the university’s theater program); stage crew – Kendra Ertel; production photography – Catherine Egger

Cast: Cathy Haitt – Erin Renae LaFond; Jamie Wellerstein – Kevin James Sievert

Orchestra: Keyboard – Phillip Jindra; bass – Aaron Zommers; violin – Monica Hrudik; cello – Katie Schroeder; assistant to pianist – Tessa Komorowski

Running time: One hour, 35 minutes (no intermission)

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. April 7, 8

Info: http://manitowoc.uwc.edu/arts/theatre

***

“The Last Five Years” is a tricky show in that the audience has to catch on that the two characters are going through five years in opposite flows of time. The male, Jamie Wellerstein, is moving forward, basically light to dark. The female, Cathy Hiatt, is moving back in time, basically dark to light. The only time the characters are in the same scene together is in the middle, when they marry.

Jason Robert Brown gives the performers a lot to work with with the stories of their characters and the songs that develop those characters.

Jamie is a writer who is catching on fire. Cathy is an actress whose career goals are just out of reach. Their love brushes aside cultural differences – he’s Jewish, she’s not – but their love can’t overcome Jamie’s stellar success and temptations that come with it.

The show is reportedly somewhat autobiographical. Jason Robert Brown, a multiple award winner, gives insights into what fame can do in artistic ways. Jamie’s songs “Moving Too Fast” and “Nobody Needs to Know” tell of someone caught up in dynamics larger than expected. Cathy’s “I’m a Part of That” and “When You Come Home to Me” tell of someone caught in a strong current.

In performance, Kevin James Sievert as Jamie and Erin Renae LaFond as Cathy take a can-do approach – “I can do this, be an entirely different person than what I am.” The two tap the dramatics in their character – and there’s a lot happening. Vocally, LaFond peaks in the warmth of “When You Come Home to Me” and the amazing thoughts-within-a-song of “Audition Sequence.” Sievert is into Jamie from A to Z with a lot of peaks, though the imagination of “The Schmuel Song” and the confessions of “Nobody Needs to Know” have special qualities.

A bit of background. LaFond was music director of the university’s previous production, “Zombie Prom: The Musical.” She is a music teacher in Plymouth. Sievert is a student at Silver Lake College in Manitowoc. He won the 2016 “Lakeshore’s Rising Stars” program.

At the core, the show is two solo performances. The characters appear separately and have no direct interplay except for the wedding scene. A performer performs and slips away while the other takes the focus. Each time a performer re-appears, he/she is often in a different costume – street clothes to wedding gown and tuxedo.

The performers perform with a live orchestra on stage, helping build the atmosphere.

Any imperfections don’t count in this ambitious production; it is a worth evening of theater.

The production makes the time factor a visual. The background is dominated by a 15-foot clock. The overall story is about passages of time, backward and forward. Additionally, the clock hands (not shown in the picture above) are set at 9:15, which refer to the time in “The Schmuel Song.” In the song, Sievert becomes the narrator of a folk tale and an old tailor who could have whatever he wishes by listening to the clock, which speaks. Yes, very cool.

***

Songs

 “Still Hurting” – Cathy

“Shiksa Goddess” – Jamie

“See I’m Smiling” – Cathy

“Moving Too Fast” – Jamie

“I’m a Part of That” – Cathy

“The Schmuel Song” – Jamie

“A Summer in Ohio” – Cathy

“The Next Ten Minutes” – Jamie and Cathy

“A Miracle Would Happen”/“When You Come Home to Me” – Jamie/Cathy

“Climbing Uphill”/“Audition Sequence” – Cathy

“If I Didn’t Believe in You” – Jamie

“I Can Do Better Than That” – Cathy

“Nobody Needs to Know” – Jamie

“Goodbye Until Tomorrow”/“I Could Never Rescue You” – Jamie and Cathy

***

NEXT: “Anatomy of Gray” staged reading, April 15

THE VENUE: Opened in 2001 as part of Lakeside Hall, University Theatre on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Manitowoc is a handsome space seating approximately 300. The space has a wide-angle feel. Gray is one prominent color; it’s in squares of acoustical material in the ceiling and on the side and rear walls. Wood, chiefly light toned, also is prominent in areas of framework and on the front of the raised stage. The stage is a hybrid; while it has proscenium (flat-front), a space in front of that bellies out toward the seating area. The seats are of a metallic blue-gray material with black hard plastic backs. Aisle carpeting is taupe with a thick barb wire pattern in white running through. Along with a main seating area, there are sets of box seats with nine seats on both sides near the front. Leg room is super-ample. Overall look: Inviting. Lakeside Hall is a literal name. Lake Michigan is a few hundred yards away.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays.


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