Zesty and full of hairpin turns6/6/2017
The biggest takeaway is the brilliance of the lyrics. “The Last Five years” uncorks 15 songs in 90 minutes, all by the Tony-winner Jason Robert Brown, and any one of them can snap your head back with some startling combo of wisecrack and heartbreak. A few even toss in something tongue-tied; Katy Merriman has a great bit in which she talk-sings, “look…whatever…,” while never losing the melody. As for jokes, it’s hard to beat Max Wellman, as a Jewish guy desperate for a “Shiksa” (a Christian girlfriend), wailing: “My people have suffered for thousands of years — and I don’t give a shit!”
The clever wordplay never flags, and matches up with a clever structure. Brown’s two-hander of a musical takes a half a decade’s relationship and tosses it in the air. Boy and Girl go from first date to wedding day to bruised aftermath, but in complete disarray. The aftermath in fact comes beforehand. The Noce show opens with Merriman in mourning black, “still hurting” over her divorce.
She looks in fact as if she’s been drinking a while, alone, thanks to one of Director David Van Cleave’s many smart touches. He slips the actress into a chair at the bar, across from the stage and musicians; from there, she laments: “Jamie is over…” Jamie is Wellman, and Merriman Cathy, the shiksa he courted, conquered and married — in the central set-piece, with Cathy in formal white, one of several lickety-split costume changes.
But by the time these two exchange vows, we’ve seen them broken. Jamie’s star is rising, as writer, while Cathy’s as an actress drops, and the script juggles their points of view right through the final duet. Singing from opposite sides of the stage, he mopes over the breakup and she beams over their first kiss. As the counterpoint builds, Cathy’s delight delivers a devastating pang.
The show’s success also owes a lot to the musicians, naturally, including young members of Des Moines Symphony. Under Brenton Brown’s direction, the sextet cruises through every hairpin turn in the score. Alex Snodgrass’ design likewise proves a neat fit, an adaptation of the club setup bathed in blues (what else?) and accessorized by a couple of fractured clock-faces.
What packed the house Opening Night, however, were the two local kids made good. Wellman manages Noce, often singing there, and last year Merriman’s acting won a Cloris Award. What’s more, they’re husband and wife — still married, yes. “The Last Five Years” would never have worked if both of them hadn’t brought their A game.
Granted, Wellman does better with the lighter material. The man likes to celebrate a song, belting it out, but in the numbers that plumb the dark side, like the lure of adultery, he could’ve been more of a cad. Merriman, however, could wither as well as bloom, never failing to capture the subtleties of a great role (the movie helped make a star of Anna Kendrick). As full of tricks as these songs were, she never missed a one. Onstage, this young woman’s an entire zesty spice rack of humanity, and the city’s theater smorgasbord is far richer for it.
Overheard n the lobby: “Steel Magnolias” has opened at the Playhouse, and runs through June 18…. June 15 through 18, at Salisbury House, Shakespeare on the Lawn features “The Taming of the Shrew.” ♦