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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Challenging ‘The Last Five Years’ dynamic in Menominee

Critic At Large

Coastal Players

Program covers. (Anthony LaMalfa photograph, Warren Gerds image)

MENOMINEE, Mich. (WFRV)

***

Note: A special addendum with the author’s thoughts on the production is at the end.

***

The play’s the thing, yes, but sometimes more is at play.

That would be the case with “The Last Five Years” and a remarkable presentation of the musical Friday night.

Let’s go back.

At the core, the performance is strong. The players and their director are experienced and determined, and the material demands oh so much.

The story of an arriving and failing marriage is told from two perspectives. Time turns back for the woman and moves forward for the man.

The man is a star writer. His sweep is that of a comet. The woman becomes awash in his spectacle.

That is one interpretation. There is so much about the two that author Jason Robert Brown unfolds in songs and psychology.

The woman starts in melancholy and ends in hopeful eagerness for the future. The man starts as a dot in the sky that grows and grows, with his comet racing and then fading as he pays a price for his egoistic glory.

Brittany Welch and James Porras II climb into the skins of their characters, with director John Thornberry guiding their many nuances.

Brittany Welch presents an aura of moving in a misty cloud surrounding Catherine Hiatt, an actress on the cusp… but just on the cusp, not TA-DA! success.

James Porras II delves into the VOOM! sparkle surrounding Jamie Wellerstein, a writer with a gift for words whose powerhouse personality finds love and loses it.

And now comes the part about “but sometimes more is at play” – and there is more than one “more.”

One “more” is the performance is the inaugural presentation of Coastal Players. The founder is Brittany Welch.

“The Last Five Years” is heady. It is demanding. It is theater of oomph. That appears to be an indicator of where Brittany Welch wants to go with the new theater company.

Another “more” is the performance space. It is the backstage area of a 117-year-old theater.

Arrival is through the back door, after a walk along decades-old bricks and then up a wooden staircase.

The audience faces a stage setup behind which is a vast hollow of a stripped-down theater auditorium with a balcony barely visible in the dimness.

Space inside Menominee Opera House above the performance area for the production of “The Last Five Years.” (Warren Gerds)

When the performers sing and speak, you can sense the hollow behind them.

Seating for approximately 70 is on theater seats brought in for the performance, with rows attached to long boards.

The word “chasm” springs to mind about the placement of the seats in four-story walls of bricks with a Roman arch above, with that vague hole of dimness behind the stage. So many bricks! So many 117-year-old bricks it is no wonder the place has stood.

Painted on the wall to the audience’s right is this notice: “WARNING NO SMOKING On stage or in dressing rooms The use of gasoline in any quantity strictly prohibited Manager of companies will be held responsible for defacing walls of dressing rooms and hallways, scenery or spitting tobacco on floors.” So there. Listen up.

The stage is raised a foot. At the rear is a black curtain. On the stage are six chairs and two tables.

The actors come and go from either side of the curtain as scenes change and they change costumes.

Another “more” is the building. The Menominee Opera House is essentially a shell of its former self.

The exterior includes a stately front façade, though “needs work” is a thought on first look.

Front of Menominee Opera House. (Warren Gerds)

The interior is an invitation to find a time machine to re-discover what the place once was. Those brick walls are not talking, except to say, “This place WAS something grand.”

All in all, this production of “The Last Five Years” is an experience in theater and desire that is anything but normal. Wholly fascinating.

Friday night’s performance received a standing ovation and cheers.

One more “more”: Friday’s performance was the first theatrical presentation in Menominee Opera House since 1950.

***

Creative: Playwright – Jason Robert Brown; director, scenic and graphic designer – John Thornberry

Cast:

Catherine Hiatt – Brittany Welch

Jamie Wellerstein – James Porras II

Running time: 90 minutes (no intermission)

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 14, 2 p.m. Sept. 15

***

Songs (recorded soundtrack)

“Still Hurting” – Cathy

“Shiksa Goddess” – Jamie

“See I’m Smiling” – Cathy

“Moving Too Fast” – Jamie

“A Part of That” – Cathy

“The Schmuel Song” – Jamie

“A Summer in Ohio” – Cathy

“The Next Ten Minutes” – Jamie, Cathy

“A Miracle Would Happen” – Jamie

“When You Come Home to Me” – 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” ­– Cathy

“I Could Never Rescue You” – Jamie

***

Sign outside Menominee Opera House. (Warren Gerds)

VENUE: Opened in 1902, Menominee Opera House at 5th Ave. and 2nd St. in downtown Menominee is a product of the lumbering heyday. Designed by Chicago architect George O. Garnsey, the facility was equipped with a full-rigged stage house, four dressing rooms, trap/green room, lobby and 1,000 seats in eight boxes, orchestra, mezzanine and gallery. Menominee Opera House presented stock companies and road shows that toured by train, hosting such luminaries as Maude Adams, John Philip Sousa, and Texas Guinan. Interspersed were political rallies, suffrage meetings and local productions. The arrival of motion pictures changed its fate and uses. A fire in 1950 led to decades of disuse. A non-profit entity is working to breathe new life into the building. The architecture on the front is a mixture of French Second Empire in the roof with touches of Italianate in fringes and with Roman arches and columns with Greek Ionic capitals. The place was built to make a statement about importance.

***

ADDENDUM

Message from me to Jason Robert Brown:

Friday night, Sept. 13, “The Last Five Years” was performed as the inaugural production of the theatrical troupe Coastal Players in the 1902 Menominee (Michigan) Opera House as the first theatrical venture there since 1950. The place has spent most of its years derelict, and it is still mostly so. The performance was in the backstage space – concrete floor – with a single black curtain, six chairs and two tables and the audience facing the gutted theater. The performance was more than fine, and the circumstances fascinating. The director and the woman playing Cathy (founder of the troupe) said “The Last Five Years” was on their bucket list. Any thoughts on “The Last Five Years” playing a role in lives in such a way? Thanks, Warren Gerds, WFRV-TV, Green Bay, Wisconsin, Critic at Large. (“Wearegreenbay” is the station’s Internet connector.)

The response:

Hi Warren:
My initial impetus for writing “The Last Five Years” was to create something that would be easily produced; I had spent many years working on “Parade,” which was huge and unwieldy and therefore unlikely to have much of a life in theaters around the country, so I was determined to create something that could be done, as I used to say, in my living room.  In order to accomplish that, the piece needed to be both small in size and large in emotional intensity. I knew that what would really make the piece attractive was if it were a showcase for the actors who had to do it.  But of course the piece wasn’t entirely a calculation; I had a lot of stuff I really felt like I needed to say about being an artist in your 20s and what that meant in terms of maintaining a relationship.  All of that said, everything about the Menominee production is exactly what the piece was designed to be -– intimate, bespoke, informal and deeply important on a personal level.  I couldn’t be happier that this troupe wanted to bring my show to life, and found such a special and unique way to do it.
Best,
J.

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