A child was born and he shall lead them!
Sounds like a Christmas story, right? But this one is about the stunning theatrical birth of a brand new theater company that arrived with all the power and emotional tug of the birth of any child.
The company is All In Productions and they opened their life with a stirring mounting of "The Last 5 Years," the quirky and intelligent musical by Jason Robert Brown. This production is a perfect example of the wondrous power of live theater. There is almost no dialogue and rarely do the two actors appear on stage at the same time.
The story is about two people, Jamie Wellerstein and Cathy Hiatt, and the five years they spent together as a couple. The conceit of the play is that each of them tells the story, but she does so from the end and he tells it from the beginning.
The play opens in silence, with Jamie sitting at a table, writing and reading. He leaves and is replaced by Cathy and that’s when the grab begins.
This relationship has ended, although we aren’t quite sure why. But the heartbreak of Cathy is obvious from the first words of her song, the first words we hear from the stage. She sits, alone a their table, a single light shining on her.
"Jamie is over and Jamie is gone.
Jamie's decided it's time to move on.
Jamie has new dreams he's building upon,
And I'm still hurting.
Jamie arrived at the end of the line.
Jamie's convinced that the problems are mine.
Jamie is probably feeling just fine,
And I'm still hurting."
We don’t know anything about this girl or their relationship, but you can feel the hearts of everyone in the audience going out to her, our hands reaching to help her hold on to whatever hope she has left.
The lament of Cathy is soon replaced with Jamie’s "Shiksa Goddess," the buoyant and joyous recounting of their first date and perhaps his first date with a girl who was not a Jew.
"If you had a tattoo, that wouldn't matter.
If you had a shaved head, that would be cool.
If you came from Spain or Japan
Or the back of a van–
Just as long as you're not from Hebrew school–
I'd say ‘Now I'm getting somewhere!
I'm finally breaking through!’
I'd say ‘Hey! Hey! Shiksa goddess!
I've been waiting for someone like you.’"
Slowly and teasingly the story moves, forward and backward, and we know that at some point each of their stories will intersect and we will be privy to the magic moment when the truth of any relationship carries us up to the sky.
It happens in the song "The Next 10 Minutes," which is what Jamie asks for as he proposes to Cathy. All he wants is the next ten minutes of her life and if they make it that far he is going to ask for another ten. We already know that this thing is going to end in heartbreak, but the poignancy of the moment is almost overwhelming.
Robby McGhee, who has never directed a play in his life, shows that instinct is much more important than experience.
As Jamie and Cathy dance, she rests her head on his shoulder and he whispers a sweet nothings that we can barely hear. They laugh and kiss. That is a director’s moment and you could see smiles on everyone in the theater. Even though we knew this was doomed, we shared in the wonderful and momentary happiness of these two lovers.
McGhee, who has acted himself, is clearly a director who loves and trusts his actors. And that trust is not betrayed in the performances by Amanda Carson, who plays Cathy, and Michael David Stoddard, who plays Jamie.
Stoddard is the director of theater at Divine Savior Holy Angels High School which has a well deserved reputation for theater of a very high level. Carson is a graduate of St. Olaf College in Minnesota.
It’s hard to put into words how absolutely riveting the two of them were. These are not easy songs to handle, but under the astute and sensitive music direction of Colleen Schmitt, the two of them handled the most challenging moments with ease. One of the toughest things about a play like this, a play with almost no dialogue, is to give us a fully fleshed-out character while relying solely on singing.
Carson plays an actor who continually ends up out of New York and touring places like Ohio in summer shows. She is earnest and dedicated but clearly hoping that something – or somebody – will come along to change her life. Jamie is it.
Stoddard, who plays a novelist, has the kind of lean and hungry look you’d associate with the artist on his way up. He has a powerful and expressive voice that wrings every last bit of emotion out of his songs.
Many a new theater company unveils itself with proclamations of being edgy, pushing the envelope, getting to the heart of social ills and being brave and courageous.
In the opening message in the program from the founders of AIP, they write that they want to do "theater that makes you want to see shows. To do shows. Theater that inspires theater."
It’s a wonderful goal to create something that makes you want more of that something.
Everyone involved in this production ought to be very, very proud of what they’ve done for their first time out.
"The Last 5 Years" runs through Dec. 27 and information on tickets and showtimes is available here.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
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