A Musical 'He Said, She Said'

Photo by Patrick Tracy

Nathan Hawkins and Jennifer Martinelli star in The Last Five Years at Altarena Playhouse.

Altarena Playhouse's latest offering is a nostalgic look back (and forward) at love gone wrong. Written by Jason Robert Brown, The Last Five Years is the bittersweet account of a five-year relationship between struggling actress Cathy Hiatt and up-and-coming novelist Jamie Wellerstein. Cleverly presented in turns, with dueling timelines (Jamie's side is told in chronological order while Cathy's story begins at the end), each character gives his/her account of the last five years. The show is sung-through so the nuances of conversation are replaced by musical numbers and deliberate staging, all played out on a very minimal set. When the play begins, Cathy (played by Jennifer Martinelli) is lamenting the break up of her marriage, performing the tearful "Still Hurting" while, in contrast, Jamie (played by Nathan Hawkins) is giddily optimistic about his new relationship as he sings the praises of his "Shiksa Goddess." This incongruity continues throughout the show and frames the couple's ultimate incompatibility. Issues of conflicting careers and infidelity are hinted at as the cause of their break up, but one gets the sense that these two were never quite on the same road to begin with.

The couple's inability to connect in their marriage is mirrored by the production's staging. The characters fleetingly interact only twice in the show, but when they do the harmonies are lovely and the longing palpable. With the exception of "The Next Ten Minutes" and "Goodbye Until Tomorrow" which are duets, each song is presented as a soliloquy with the characters giving us glimpses at the moments leading to and away from the relationship's end. While both actors are very good in their respective roles, Martinelli may have the more challenging job, opening the show at her character's lowest point. This is perhaps a flaw in the play's structure, since the audience, despite feeling sympathy for the clearly devastated Cathy, isn't quite sure what's happening or why.

Jamie's character, on the other hand, develops in front of the audience and has a more familiar flow, making his storyline easier to follow. He also has the better of the song list, and Hawkins does an excellent job making the most of it. His performance of the "The Schmuel Song" is easily one of the show's high points.

The orchestra, under the direction of Conductor Armando Fox, provides the soundtrack for this "he said, she said," handling the varied score beautifully. Fox also plays piano with Lisa Hickox on guitar, Patrice Young and Peter Metcalf on cello and Josh Cohen on violin.

Because of a few randomly placed (and unnecessary) expletives, the otherwise innocuous show gets a PG-13 rating.

Directed by Corrie Lenn Borris (familiar to audiences for her turn as Sally Bowles in last season's production of Cabaret), The Last Five Years runs now through June 10. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.

Altarena Playhouse is located at 1409 High Street. For more information, log onto www.altarena.org or contact the box office at 523-1553.


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