The Last Five Years

Last 5 Years

The Last Five Years: Pioneer Productions Company at the Art House, Jersey City

Some Background

The Last Five Years is the most famous Broadway musical never to appear on Broadway. Written by 3-time Tony winner Jason Robert Brown (Parade, The Bridges of Madison County, Honeymoon in Vegas), the show had its premiere at Chicago’s Northlight Theatre in 2001, then played Off Broadway at the Minetta Lane Theatre in 2002 and at Second Stage (with Adam Kantor and Betsy Wolfe) in 2013. The 2015 film adaptation starred Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick. Although it is performed often in venues around the world (as a two-hander, it’s a natural for regional theatre companies looking to keep budgets low), it has yet to make its way to the Main Stem.

 The Story

The story line is a classic he said/she said tale of love found and lost. But there’s a twist: the two characters, Jamie Wellerstein, an up-and-coming writer (Daniel Peter Vissers) and struggling actress Cathy Hiatt (Shanna Levine-Phelps) relate their tale through alternating songs, with Cathy starting in the present, when the marriage ends, and Jamie beginning in the past, when he and Cathy first meet. We witness the joy, uncertainty, and heartbreak, from their two perspectives, backwards and forward through time. Because of the play’s unique structure, Cathy and Jamie sing together only once, at the close of Act 1, when their stories cross paths on their wedding day (“The Next 10 Minutes”).

The show is sung through, with very little dialogue. The opening tune, “Still Hurting,” introduces Cathy at the moment she realizes her marriage is over. She sings, “I’m still hurting…I’m covered with scars I did nothing to earn,” then she slips off her wedding ring and places it on the table where Jamie has already left his. In contrast, Jamie’s first song, “Shiksa Goddess” (one of the show’s best as well as best-known) is an exuberant, hysterical ode to the Irish Catholic lass Jamie has just met and instantly fallen for. Cathy is the polar opposite of a suitable match for a nice Jewish boy—and that’s exactly what makes her so completely irresistible. Jamie imagines the havoc his unorthodox choice in a mate will provoke:

“I’m breaking my mother’s heart;

The JCC of Spring Valley is shaking and crumbling to the ground.

And my grandfather’s rolling in his grave.”

So enamored of her total goyishness is he that nothing about Cathy can dampen his ardor. Among the clever and uproarious characteristics that Jamie vows he would accept of his Shiksa Goddess:

“If you had a pierced tongue, that wouldn’t matter.

If you once were in jail or you once were a man,

If your mother and your brother had ‘relations’ with each other,

And your father was connected to the Gotti clan,

I’d say, ‘Well, nobody’s perfect.’

It’s tragic but it’s true:

I’d say, “Hey! Hey! Shiksa goddess!

I’ve been waiting for someone like you.”

The Production

Both Shanna Levine-Phelps and Daniel Peter Vissers are strong, confident performers and trained, capable singers. Vissers, like any actor playing Jamie, has the advantage in The Last Five Years, as his character is the more sympathetic of the two. After all, Brown based the show on his own life, drawing heavily from his failed marriage to actress Theresa O’Neill. So it’s not surprising that Jamie’s character is more relatable (and gets the best songs). Because the character of Cathy starts out weepy and spends most of the show in a funk, the lion’s share of the fun and laughs go to Jamie. Other than Cathy’s breezy “A Summer in Ohio,” where she laments the life of an actress paying her dues Off, Off, Off, Off Broadway (where she is “Slowly going batty, 40 miles east of Cincinnati”), and her final number, where she sings the sunny counterpart to “Goodbye Until Tomorrow,” most of the tunes in her repertoire are weepy and angst-ridden. Any actress playing Cathy has a tough assignment, as Brown has stacked the deck in favor of his alter ego, Jamie. And it’s difficult not to notice that, while Ms. Levine-Phelps is a lovely young actress, she doesn’t look much like a “Shiksa Goddess” (although artistically, she is more than up to the role’s demands).

Vissers makes the most of his character’s most favored status. He equally conveys the humor in “Shiksa Goddess,” the youthful enthusiasm of “Moving Too Fast,” and the touching pathos of “Nobody Needs to Know” and “Goodbye Until Tomorrow.” He is a gifted, winning performer who truly shines in the role.

The Pioneer production includes a spare but effective set: a bed, a chair, and a clock on the wall flanked by two candles—one looking back, and the other looking forward, mimicking the structure of the show. The incredibly talented (and incredibly young) 5-piece band, under the direction of pianist Sean Cameron, does a superb job backing up the actors, serving as a valuable third performer in the production. Lighting design by John Latona, Jr. and technical direction by Lance A. Michel add to the production’s effectiveness.

The Last Five Years is at Art House, 136 Magnolia Avenue in Jersey City.

Performance schedule: Fridays & Saturdays, July 8, 9, 15, 16, 22, & 23 @8pm;

Sundays, July 10, 17, & 24 @3pm

For ticket information visit http://www.pioneerproductionscompany.org

 

 

HONEYMOON IN VEGAS

Honeymoon in Vegas

Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St.

The Honeymoon has just begun, in this big, brash, winning new musical starring Tony Danza and Rob McClure.

Lead Cast: Rob McClure (Jack Singer), Tony Danza (Tommy Korman), Brynn O’Malley (Betsy Nolan), David Josefsberg (Buddy Rocky/Roy Bacon, Nancy Opel (Bea Singer), Catherine Ricafort (Mahi)

Music & Lyrics: Jason Robert Brown

Book: Andrew Bergman

Director: Gary Griffin

Choreography: Denis Jones

Hooray for Rob McClure

When I chatted with Rob McClure after an early preview performance of Honeymoon in Vegas, I told him, “I’m so happy that you’re going to be in a hit!” Now that the show has finally opened (after nearly 2 months of previews), that prediction has become a reality.

The brilliantly talented 32-year-old actor has appeared on Broadway before, most notably in the title role in Chaplin: the Musical in 2012. He received raves for his performance, along with Tony, Drama League, and Outer Critics Circle nominations. Unfortunately, the show itself wasn’t so well received, and despite McClure’s wonderful turn as Chaplin, it closed after only 4 months. Now, 3 years later, his time has arrived.

Shari & Rob McClure

The Plot

The Broadway musical Honeymoon in Vegas is based on the 1992 film directed by Andrew Bergman (who wrote the musical’s book) that starred Nicolas Cage, James Caan, and Sarah Jessica Parker. The plot involves a love triangle between Jack Singer (McClure), his long-time fiancée Betsy Nolan (O’Malley), and a Vegas high roller, Tommy Korman (Danza). Jack has delayed marriage to his beloved Betsy because his mother, Bea (a hilarious Nancy Opel), cursed him from her deathbed, decreeing that he must never marry. When Betsy finally puts her foot down, the couple heads to Vegas to defy the curse. Here’s the twist: it turns out that the lovely Betsy is a dead ringer for Korman’s dearly departed wife Donna, who died of skin cancer after a lifetime of basking in the Vegas sun. A tough guy who is used to getting what he wants, Tommy sets out to make Betsy his own.

Singer embarks on a hero’s journey, traveling from New York to Las Vegas and Hawaii to conquer his demons (i.e., his mother and Tommy Korman), claim his manhood, and win his lady love. Along the way he receives help from a diverse group of characters, including Mahi (Ricafort) a Hawaiian temptress who takes him to the “Garden of Disappointed Mothers” to face his fears, and the performance troupe the Flying Elvises, who take him back to Vegas to reclaim his bride.

Will Jack and Betsy ever have that honeymoon in Vegas? What do you think? (This is a Broadway musical, not King Lear)!

The Performances

Honeymoon in Vegas is a big, colorful show that is engaging and fun from beginning to end. It will win you over from the first moment, when McClure takes the stage to sing “I Love Betsy.” His performance is charming and effortless, bringing to mind Gene Kelly in “Singin’ in the Rain.” Sure, Jack is a bit of a wuss, but as portrayed by McClure, he’s so appealing and sincere that root for him to succeed.

Tony Danza is perhaps the show’s biggest surprise. Best known to television viewers for his roles in “Taxi” and “Who’s the Boss?” the 63-year-old actor is in incredible shape, trim and light on his feet, evidenced by Danza’s impressive soft shoe styling in the show. While no natural singer (other cast members usually join in to help provide a bigger finish for many of his songs), what he lacks in vocal power he more than makes up for in easy charm. For example, he totally sells the touching/funny elegy to his sun worshipping wife, “Out of the Sun:” I never knew, I never guessed, that what could kill you is the thing you love the best. I should have gotten her out of the sun.” Danza shows us that even a bad guy has a heart and deserves another shot at love.

O’Malley is a Broadway pro with a gorgeous voice who has appeared in Annie, Wicked, Sunday in the Park with George, and Hairspray. She is a winning Betsy, although the role is really secondary to the male leads. Two supporting characters are standouts: Nancy Opel, as Jack’s dead gorgon of a mother, and David Josefsberg as the ultra smooth, Sinatra-like Vegas crooner Buddy Rocky (and a second role as Roy Bacon, leader of the Singing Elvises). Opel’s show-stealing number “Never Get Married” should win her a Tony nomination for best Supporting Actress in a Musical.

A Note on the Score

The music and lyrics, by critical darling and 3-time Tony winner Jason Robert Brown (Bridges of Madison County, The Last Five Years, Parade) are a huge part of the show’s appeal. The tunes are upbeat and original and the lyrics advance the story line in clever ways, from the romantic ballad “You Made the Wait Worthwhile” (A thousand dreams that never came true and pipers I had to pay, and all at once I’m standing with you and everything fades away) to the big production number “When You Say Vegas” (London’s too old and Cleveland ain’t pretty, and we got nicer hookers than Jersey City) and the heartfelt “Isn’t That Enough?” when Jack lists Betsy’s many fine attributes in an effort to convince his mother to lift the curse: She went to Vassar, she’s got a cat and no tattoos. She’s not a smoker, she’s not a snob. She loves her family and her job. Isn’t that enough?

Having seen the recent production of the somewhat disappointing and overly somber Bridges of Madison County, I found it hard to believe that Honeymoon’s tunes flowed from the same pen.

Trivia

The Paper Mill connection: New Jersey native Rob McClure won Paper Mill Playhouse’s (in Millburn, NJ) “Rising Star Scholarship” when he was a senior at New Milford High School. Soon after graduating, he played his first professional role at Paper Mill in Carousel. Honeymoon in Vegas had its pre-Broadway run at Paper Mill in 2013.

Should You Go? Absolutely. Honeymoon is a guaranteed good time. It’s silly and fun (while surprisingly touching at times), and has a terrific score, gorgeous sets, (and gorgeous showgirls), and top notch performances. The sets create a retro feeling that is more reminiscent of Vegas’s Rat Pack days than the present, but that just adds to the fun. According to the show’s Website, Honeymoon in Vegas is suitable for all ages, but I doubt any child under the age of 8 would find it very interesting. Run time is 2 hours, 35 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

Ticket Info: Because of its long preview period, discounted tickets for Honeymoon in Vegas have been readily available on TKTS and TDF. However, now that the show has opened to rave reviews, discounts may be scarce. Additionally, because many Broadway shows have closed or will close in January (Pippin, Cinderella, Side Show, Once, The Last Ship, Motown, among others), theatre goers don’t have much to choose from, so competition for Honeymoon tickets could heat up (at least until the Spring season gets under way). There is no current offer for the show listed on Playbill.com

You can find additional ticket info about Honeymoon in Vegas and other Broadway shows on Broadway Helper.

Show Website