Review: Abels times 3 turns ‘Last 5 Years’ into a moving equation
‘And I’m a part of that,” the woman named Cathy sings as she reflects on her husband’s skyrocketing career as a novelist and the glamorous life within his reach. Her voice lingers and swells on the “I’m,” as if she’s willing herself to make the statement true.
Pictured at top: Daniel Abels Rodriguez and Taylor Abels Rodriguez in ‘The Last 5 Years.’ Photo / Ronald D. Webb, StageWorks Fresno
It is a pensive moment in Jason Robert Brown’s “The Last 5 Years,” and one of my favorites. (It also helps that the song, titled “I’m a Part of That,” is the most beautiful in an often sumptuous score.) As Taylor Abels Rodriguez plays it in the sensitive and deeply moving new StageWorks Fresno production at the Fresno Art Museum, her character’s frustrations and resentments are intertwined with pride in her husband’s accomplishments. So is her optimism. She is going to make this marriage work, she thinks.
“The Last 5 Years” is ultimately about a relationship whose two unequal halves never find a way to merge into a pleasing whole. What happens when one person in a marriage moves toward great success, and the other clearly seems to be forging a far more ordinary route? For some marriages, this arrangement works quite nicely. For others, it gets ugly.
The other half of this intimate, two-person musical (exquisitely directed by Joel C. Abels) is Jamie, a hot-shot young novelist whose inaugural book is the talk of New York. Daniel Abels Rodriguez plays the role, and he has a tougher job than that of Taylor. (Yes, she happens to be his wife in real life as well as on stage.) Jamie is brilliant, and he has an ego to match. He also can’t keep his eyes off other women, at least after he’s been married to Cathy for a while. His youthful confidence comes off as arrogant and off-putting, which is remarkable, considering that the composer based the storyline on his own marriage.
I’ve never liked Jamie, something reinforced after seeing one professional production of the show and listening to the cast album. Yet in this version, Daniel’s nuanced acting and heartfelt singing — this is almost an entirely sung-through musical — made me stop and consider the character anew.
Before I go on, it’s no spoiler to tell you that the structure of the show is distinctive. The “five years” in question refers to the length of Jamie and Cathy’s relationship. As the show opens, we’re at the end of that relationship — at least from Cathy’s perspective. When it comes to Jamie’s state of mind at the beginning is completely different. He’s deliriously in love, and we follow his story forward in time while Cathy’s unfolds in the opposite direction.
Joel — who is Taylor’s father and Daniel’s father-in-law, making this poignant and personal tale very much a family affair — has made the show resonate in the small Bonner Auditorium at the museum. The actors only get a sliver of space closest to the audience, ensconced in a stylized, vaguely urban set that feels lived in and comfortable: bits of brick wall, plenty of paned windows, scraps of foliage bustled throughout. The rest of the stage is claimed by the fine seven-piece pit orchestra. (Tim Fletcher is the precise and accomplished music director; his careful downbeat, clearly visible from the audience, becomes a kind of visual motif throughout). The live music adds greatly to the production, thanks to Brown’s lush score.
Regina Harris’ sound design is very good, allowing the audience to experience both the bigness of the music and also the voices, with a fine balance between. Dan Aldape’s lighting design keeps things feeling snug and contemplative, with bits of sunshine piercing quite a few dark clouds.
I knew that Daniel’s performance opening night was going to be strong when he hit his first high notes in his introductory song, “Shiksa Goddess.” From then on, it’s a textured and nuanced journey with him. From the rubbery face he puts on for “The Schmuel Song” to his gruff and dismissive tone with Cathy as the relationship sours, Daniel finds levels of complexity. And, yes, I found myself not exactly warming to Jamie as a character, but less likely to write him off as a one-note jerk. (Though, for the record, he’s still mostly a jerk.)
Taylor has some beautiful moments as Cathy as well. Like Daniel, she gives us a raw and visceral glimpse at the complexities of her character. Cathy has a song in which she dismisses her small New Jersey hometown and high school friends with limited aspirations. She can do better than that, she declares. Yet this dismissiveness is relevant later when she finds it hard to adjust to her husband’s upward career climb. Cathy has issues with both failure and success, it seems.
Adding to the depth of the experience is the simple fact that we have a real-life couple playing one on stage. There’s extra emotional voltage running throughout. At one point, just after the wedding scene — one of the few times in the show that the characters really interact — they walk to opposite side of the stage, and a long glance hangs between them, one of longing and sadness and joy and despair. When that glance finally dissipates, like a leaf fluttering to the ground, you realize that in the mixed-up chronology of this little musical, you’ve just witnessed the intersection of two lives. And we’re a part of that.