STURGEON BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – Jazz by a combo bustles along as background sound.
On stage are invitations to explore. White parallel bands at an angle on the floor cross over brown parallel bands at a right angle to the eye. At the rear, white parallel bands seem to step their way up the backdrop, with the top band angling off. At the very top are wooden ceiling beams. Or so it seems. The beams are part of the magic of artistic perspective. The eye looks and looks and looks until what seems like a room of sorts is finally deciphered: Something flat is 3-D.
These sounds and images are saying something. Symbolic of lives that don’t quite meet, the images are part of the artistry of “The Last Five Years” as presented by Third Avenue PlayWorks. The images especially take the production to an enhanced level, adding to what the musical offers at its core.
Side trip: At the time of a previous production in this region, Jason Robert Brown responded to an email from me and provided insights. In part, he wrote:
“My initial impetus for writing ‘The Last Five Years’ was to create something that would be easily produced… 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… (T)he piece was designed to be intimate, bespoke, informal and deeply important on a personal level.”
The complexities of Jason Robert Brown’s musical stir the imagination.
The musical’s first song is an end. Its second song is a beginning. And so the stories of a woman and a man go, back and forth, piecing together the ending and beginning of a marriage.
The woman, Cathy Hiatt, is an actor, somewhat successful but not quite able to make it to “The City” – the mecca of American theater, New York City and Broadway.
The man, Jamie Wellerstein, is a writer, with building success as his story progresses. His price of fame costs her, his wife. She is told so: “I will not lose because you can’t win.”
What happens in “The Last Five Years” is intriguing – detailed in its explorations of a relationship as presented by an author who knows his way around music and words in the density of high-level musical theater.
The visual artistry in the set work helps set up engaging, thorough, top-notch performances by Allie Babich as Cathy and Collin O’Connor as Jamie.
Director Bill Theisen and the creative team – and the abilities of the players – add fullness to the production that continues to Sept. 11.
Music is supplied on stage by Mark Hanson on piano and Paul Bannach on bass, with two added touches. Collin O’Connor plays guitar in one song featuring Allie Babich. And in a telling song by Jamie/Collin O’Connor, Allie Babich plays the piano to underscore Cathy’s emotion.
Jason Robert Brown’s songs are melodic, biting, comedic, romantic, peppery, soulful, explosive, sweet and sad – overall knowing.
“The Schmuel Song” is amazing. A toiling tailor and a talking clock that can turn back time are just starters in the song’s tale sung by Jamie/Collin O’Connor.
“Audition Sequence” also is amazing. Cathy’s mind veers all over as it flits through thoughts sung in the midst of an audition.
Vocal challenges abound. Allie Babich covers the huge range of her character with luster, vigor and color. Collin O’Connor grabs the bitting nature of his character with strength.
The show is something of a confessional by Jason Robert Brown that sympathizes with Cathy but only to a point. That’s one take.
More obvious is this is an excellent, full-bodied professional production.
Note: Masks required of audience members.
Running time: 87 minutes with no intermission
Remaining performances: To Sept. 11: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays to Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays
Creative: Book, music, lyrics – Jason Robert Brown; director – Bill Theisen; music director – Mark Hanson; scenic designer – Lisa Schlenker; costume designer – Dan Klarer; lighting designer – Trey Brezeal; props designer – Jenevieve Lee; production stage manager – Kelsey Brennan York; assistant director; managing director – Amy Frank; artistic director – Jacob Janssen
Catherine Hiatt – Allie Babich
Jamie Wellerstein – Collin O’Connor
Musicians – Mark Hanson (piano), Paul Bannach (Paul Bannach)
Production support – Alex Polzin (technical director); Hayden Ahlswede, Jenevieve Lee, Alex M. Sabin (run crew); Colin Gawronski (master electrician)
“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, 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: “Birds of North America” by Anna Ouyang Moench, Oct. 2-30.
THE VENUE: Third Avenue PlayWorks, which includes the Steve and Jackie Kane Theatre, is located at 239 N. 3rd Ave. in downtown Sturgeon Bay. “Slow Food” opens the first full season in the renovated former Third Avenue Playhouse and Studio Theatre. The origins of Third Avenue Playhouse date to 1999. The playhouse previously was a movie theater, the Donna, which opened Nov. 25, 1958. The new auditorium is a “black box” theater at heart – black stage curtains, black walls (mostly), black ceiling – with all new theatrical support elements. On either side of the stage, walls are exposed to brick-and-stone work of original buildings – a historical touch. Architectural style? Black Box Cleaned Up does the trick. A gray, linear-patterned rug leads from the lobby into the auditorium. Seating for 144 is in eight rows on an inclined seating area, with red handrails for the steps and slopes on the sides. Seats are gray plastic structure in legs, back and arms, with seating area of red fabric. The performers in “The Last Five Years” use their natural voices with no assist of wireless headset amplification. The lobby areas – multiple spaces with storefront-type windows facing the street – are a blend of art gallery and loft (some exposed beams and ventilation pipes) in aura. One gathering space at present features historical photographs of the downtown. The space near the theater entrance includes photographs from selected previous productions. A concession stand has opened. Restroom facilities are greatly improved.