at the Chance Theater
One of the most fascinating things about theatre is how many ways there are to produce the same material. The Last 5 Years is a perfect example. As there have been many versions of this award-winning musical in the Southland, readers are familiar with composer-playwright-lyricist Jason Robert Brown's innovative concept and how difficult it is to perform. Against all odds, the gutsy 99-Seat Chance Theater has met the challenge and mounted Brown's opus on a shoestring budget. Thanks to the creative intimate vision of director Oanh Nguyen, this two-person tug-of-war love story is an astonishing success on many levels.
First and foremost is Bob Simpson's tour-de-force performance as Jamie, the nice Jewish boy who becomes a world famous novelist much too fast. Simpson dramatically sings up a storm, clowns around, breaks our hearts, and commands stage and audience with dynamic skill. Second is Jocelyn A. Brown as Cathy, the Irish-Catholic girl who struggles to become an actor. Though her voice is lovely and her acting convincing, she doesn't embody the "Shiksa Goddess" Jamie falls "head-over-heels in love with at first sight." Nor do her clothes (designed by Sherry Linnell) enhance her appearance. That aside, Brown's sensitive delivery of her vulnerable character is impressive in comic routines and tragic ballads. Clarity is extremely important because this character-driven musical relives the couple's relationship in an unusual time frame: Cathy begins at the breakup and works back to when they met; Jamie starts with their first date and moves forward to the present.
With the exception of two powerful duets that Simpson and Brown nail—"The Next Ten Minutes" when Jamie proposes and "Goodbye Until Tomorrow/I Could Never Rescue You" when they divorce—the scenes are sung to the audience as up-close intimate solos. A fabulous trio backs them up on John Robinson's minimal set enhanced by Jon Langrell's lighting. Rob Blaney directs from the piano, Kyle Cahill plays a mean guitar, and Jerry Motto underscores the beat on bass.
Presented by and at the Chance Theater, 5552 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Jan. 26-Mar. 12. (800) 838-3006.
Reviewed by Shirle Gottlieb