MARINETTE, Wis. (WFRV) – Some marriages fail. One failed marriage is a success artistically. It’s in “The Last Five Years.”
The musical is the first breath of live, in-person life for the venerable Theatre on the Bay as it finds its way through the COVID-19 pandemic and association with the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Marinette Campus. Those are external dramas.
“The Last Five Years” provides other dramas as it exercises the intellect. Its situation finds creator Jason Robert Brown telling of his personal experiences in a most unusual way. It’s up to the audience to figure out time is passing in both directions in the two-person story.
The life of actress Cathy Hiatt is moving from her story’s conclusion in the musical to five years earlier. The audience meets her in an unhappy mode.
The life of writer Jamie Wellerstein is met when he is enthralled with Cathy Hiatt.
The show ends on notes of goodbye. Jamie is saying goodbye forever to Cathy. Cathy is saying goodbye for the night to Jamie.
In between, the audience sees the two lives played out. A key line comes from Jamie: “I will not lose because you can’t win.” Jamie is a rising star, and Cathy’s star is stuck.
In structure, “The Last Five Years” is distinctive. Singular.
Action proceeds mostly in song as the characters delve into their thoughts and feelings. There is plenty of fodder for the performers. In this case, Brittany Welch and James Porras II are in their second go-around in the musical. A 2019 production introduced Brittany Welch’s independent Coastal Players company in a unique presentation in Menominee (Michigan) Opera House. The current production with three performances remaining is in Herbert L. Williams Theatre, which provides all the necessaries for performances.
James Porras II’s Jamie is a forceful type, a creative go-getter. Brittany Welch’s Cathy is of a fragile nature in comparison. Another hitch in the characters’ relationship is their different backgrounds. Their love remains blind only so long.
The performances are well-seasoned and mature. The audience goes to places it wouldn’t ordinarily go through the characters’ thoughtfully played lives.
Jason Robert Brown’s songs often are little seas of churning thoughts – complex as they are gnarly, knowing and sometimes comical. Some are wondrous.
Jamie tells/sings a Hebrew-influenced tale of hopes put off in “The Schmuel Song,” which finds Jamie acting on hope.
Cathy takes listeners into the mind of person auditioning in “Climbing Uphill,” which is akin to a bucket of water (thoughts) being splashed in a face. The experience is funny, daunting, exasperating, exciting and nerve-wracking in a rush.
James Porras II and Brittany Welch command these songs.
The performance takes place on a mostly bare stage. Music is recorded. Movement is orchestrated. Time passes in part through costume changes, most noticeably for Brittany Welch/Cathy as her clothing ranges from shorts to white wedding gown.
The production is small and large at the same time. It is two-character small while speaking large things in the story and for theater in Marinette.
Side note: Among the work of Jason Robert Brown, “Songs for a New World” has continued interest in this area. The musical explores lives in moments of decision. It and “The Last Five Years” explore in imaginative ways.
Creative: Book, music, lyrics – Jason Robert Brown; producer – Linda Hornick; lighting designer and sound technician – Chris Weber
Cathy Hiatt – Brittany Welch
Jamie Wellerstein – James Porras II
Running time: One hour, 25 minutes (no intermission)
Remaining performances: 7 p.m. Sept. 25 and Oct. 1-2
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
NEXT: “Escanaba in Da Moonlight,” Nov. 4-7.
THE VENUE: The 362-seat Herbert L. Williams Theatre is located in the Fine Arts Building of the University of Wisconsin-Marinette, 750 W. Bay Shore St. The bay of Green Bay is in shouting distance to the east. The facility was built in 1968. Central in the theater is a thrust stage, a half octagon that the audience surrounds. The theater includes brick walls on both sides of the stage and a white ceiling of half circles radiating from the stage, with the area above the stage exposed for the guts of the lighting grid. Three steps lead to the stage, which today bears the name The Nancy A. Gehrke Stage. The design of the stage was one of the first of its kind in the region. The theater feels spacious.
THE PEOPLE: Herbert L. Williams was professor of communication arts and artistic director of Theatre on the Bay with a lively and engaging personality. He loved to act and appeared many times in leading roles at Theatre on the Bay. Mostly, Herb Williams loved to direct. He retired after 30 years in May 1996 and continued to direct and perform in Green Bay and the Fox Cities. He may have directed more plays than anyone in the region. Herb Williams died in 2014 in Green Bay at age 79. A memorial service was held in the theater that bears his name. Nancy A. Gehrke acted for 40 years on the stage named for her.