Miss The Last Five Years at your peril. If you fail to catch this season-opener by the Red Branch Theatre Company, you’ll never know exactly when this hard-working Columbia playhouse made its big step into professional theater.
In recent seasons, Red Branch has been cultivating a personal relationship with composer Jason Robert Brown, whose Bridges of Madison County recently opened on Broadway. Last month, Brown visited the company in Maryland and collaborated with resident performers on special material as part of a cabaret fund-raiser that proved a huge success.
Now the stage is hosting Brown’s 2002 The Last Five Years as part of a two-play repertory being billed as “The Love/Loss Cycle.” It will also feature the local premiere of Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald’s john & jen, opening April 18th. It’s an artistically ambitious pairing that signals the growing reach of this active suburban playhouse.
Of course, the very title of “The Love/Loss Cycle” demands a spoiler alert. The Last Five Years unfolds in a series of solo songs that amounts to the talented composer’s personal attic-cleaning as he revisits a failed romance and marriage from the vantage point of both parties.
There are no grand literary themes in The Last Five Years, no hidden messages or political import. The lessons it holds are of the sort that anyone might draw from a relationship: that human intimacy is a journey fraught with joys and trials, but with no guaranteed destination.
Stephanie Lynn Williams is again the director at Red Branch, and she has been blessed with a cast of two immensely likable young singers. Jennifer W. Culotta plays Catherine, whose disappointments with her career as a stage actress overwhelm any satisfaction she might have taken in her husband’s success as a novelist.
Culotta’s pure and musical voice is most effective on the upbeat and whimsically effusive numbers like “A Summer in Ohio” and in heartfelt ballads like “The Next Ten Minutes.” Her more emotionally vulnerable and withdrawn solos like “Still Hurting” could benefit from more projection or even, heaven forbid, amplification.
The structural gimmick of The Last Five Years is that we hear Cathy’s side of the story in reverse chronology, even while we watch her spouse, Jamie, living through his from beginning to end. (They directly interact on stage only briefly at midpoint when their timelines intersect, which is the emotional highpoint of the piece).
Not only does the play’s structure unmoor Catherine in time, it means she must project sadness, hopelessness and marital failure at the same time as we are meeting Jamie in the ebullient early stages of romantic love.
Actor Kurt Boehm takes full advantage of his more dynamic introduction as Jamie, bouncing on stage with the joy of having met what he dubs his “Shiksa Goddess.” While Cathy bravely struggles to retain her composure (“See I’m Smiling”), Jamie reels with the elation of a career as a novelist that is “Moving Too Fast.”
Boehm gets to express his character’s Jewish roots with a charming novelty number (“The Schmuel Song”), while Cathy is given no ethnic identity at all, other than perhaps unorthodox auditioner (“Climbing Uphill”).
Like Culotta, Boehm has a sure and musical singing voice — although the score may be a step or two above both singers’ comfort zones at times. The live musical accompaniment by the always reliable Tiffany Underwood Holmes and her small pit ensemble is always an asset to the singers, sounding like everything from a simple music box to a chamber string ensemble.
Once again, Director Stephanie Lynn Williams keeps the stage action focused and filled with interest, using a fixed doorway at stage right as a transition device for mood changes.
The lighting cues by Jason Aufdem-Brinke also contribute to the strong narrative definitions set by Williams.
All in all, The Last Five Years is a major achievement by the Red Branch Theatre Company. If john & jen is anything as good, this out-of-the-way Howard County playhouse will have to be upgraded to full-fledged cultural destination.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.
The Last Five Years plays in repertory with john & jen Fridays through Sundays through May 3, 2014 at The Drama Learning Center-9130-I Red Branch Road, in Columbia, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 997-9392, or purchase them online. Tickets are $18-20 ($22 at the door), or $36 for the two-play series.