By Lynn Venhaus
Jason Robert Brown’s musical compositions are strenuous and so are two-character pieces, therefore, “The Last Five Years” was a daunting choice for the enterprising Tesseract Theatre Company as they dive into musical theater endeavors.
However, the group pulled off this marriage chronicle with aplomb when I saw it Feb. 19.. With spirited performers, exemplary musicians, accomplished direction, and smart creative choices, “The Last Five Years” is splendid.
With its all-sung framework and an unconventional structure, Brown’s unforgettable score and emotionally powerful lyrics tug at the heartstrings, for in 85 minutes, they go from meeting to break-up (Jamie Wellerstein) and from break-up to meeting (Cathy Hiatt), intersecting at their wedding.
High praise must be bestowed on an exceptional five-piece orchestra lead by veteran maestro Leah Schultz, who is on piano, with Adam Rugo on guitar, John Gerdes on bass, Chuck Evans on violin, and Marie Brown on cello. (The strings are the cherry on top here, lovely and lush.)
The music is beautiful to get lost in, and highlights are “The Next Ten Minutes,” “Still Hurting,” and “Goodbye Until Tomorrow.”
While this might sound like a simple endeavor, it is not. Brown has incorporated many genres, including jazz, blues, folk, and Latin besides his usual pop-rock fusion with musical theatre. His distinctive melodies are notoriously difficult, and his atypical harmonies require a broad vocal range.
The two leads, Kevin Corpuz as Jamie and Grace Langford as Cathy, as dynamic as they are, struggle a wee bit on a few demanding notes. Nevertheless, with the high wire singing for nearly an hour and a half, it’s a dandy achievement – especially the stamina required.
With their pizzazzy personalities on display, Corpuz and Langford are engaging as two New Yorkers – he’s a writer and she’s an actress. They convincingly convey a couple from start to finish over five years — exhilaration at falling in love to crestfallen going through a difficult break-up.
You can’t not be moved by the ebbs and flows as the storytelling weaves the doubts that 20-somethings fret about with careers and commitment.
The aching-yearning-worried songs include “Moving Too Fast” and “A Miracle Could Happen” (Jamie) and “I’m a Part of That” and “Climbing Uphill” (Cathy), which they deliver sincerely.
Langford, a strong vocalist who is well-trained, and Corpuz, who moves with great ease, have worked together multiple times in local regional professional theater, so their comfort level with each other is obvious. This is their first time paired as a romantic couple, and they are believable.
Director Taylor Gruenloh has given the piece some needed vitality, for I’ve seen this musical a couple of times where the pair just basically stand there. No, not a move you’d likely see from inventive Gruenloh, nor Corpuz or Langford. Gruenloh’s tweaked it in a good way, making it more heartfelt.
Lankford is particularly fetching in the clever ditty “A Summer in Ohio,” about her experience in summer stock away from her husband, and the humorous “I Can Do Better Than That,” about her hopes and dreams.
And Corpuz’s energy isn’t containable, so he must move. His “Shiksa Goddess” is amusing in a brazen way, a song detailing his character’s Jewish heritage.
The songs that are raw and tinged with sadness — “If I Didn’t Believe in You,” “I Could Never Rescue You,” and “Nobody Needs to Know,” have forceful solos.
Brown has won three Tony Awards – for his original score to “Parade” in 1999 (currently revived on Broadway) and for original score and orchestrations for “The Bridges of Madison County” in 2014. He was nominated for Billy Crystal’s “Mr. Saturday Night” score last year (with Amanda Green lyrics).
This musical, his third, was inspired by his first marriage, and premiered in Chicago in 2001. It moved to off-Broadway in 2002. St. Louis native Norbert Leo Butz originated the role of Jamie in Chicago and played opposite Sherie Renee Scott off-Broadway, and they recorded the cast album.
That production won the 2002 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music and Lyrics, as well as receiving Drama Desk nominations for musical, actor, actress, orchestrations and set design. It also received Lucille Lortel Award nominations for musical and actor, and the Outer Critics Circle Award nomination for Off-Broadway musical.
An enduring and popular musical with regional, colleges and community theaters, it has been revived on Broadway, turned into a 2015 movie with Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan, had an acclaimed London run, a 20th anniversary concert with Butz and original Cathy Lauren Kennedy, and directed by Brown, among other presentations.
The music remains hummable and memorable, and add Tesseract to the list of companies that do it right. Sound designer Phillip Evans has figured out .Zack’s finicky acoustics for flawless work, Brittanie Gunn’s lighting design is striking, and Gruenloh did fine projection work. Actress Josie Schnelten shows up for a cameo.
After their triumphant “Ordinary Days” last fall, and now this 2-hander, Tesseract’s prowess on staging musicals must be highly regarded. “Kinky Boots” is next up at the Grandel Theatre Aug. 17-27, one that will be a must-see.
And you don’t want to miss “The Last Five Years” – a show about love, produced with great affection, and another opportunity to hear those glorious songs.
The Tesseract Theatre Company presents “The Last Five Years” from Feb. 17 to Feb. 26, with performances Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m. at the .ZACK, 3224 Locust, in the Grand Center. For more information or tickets, visit: www.tesseracttheatre.com.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.