This is a time of transition and change in the Wilmington theatre community. City Stage officially closed last week, following last month’s shuttering of Browncoat Pub and Theatre. But perseverance in the face of disaster is one of the hallmarks of this art form since time immemorial. In the wake of these losses, Second Star Theatre Co. opened their inaugural show, Jason Robert Brown’s “The Last Five Years,” in the ArtWorks space on Willard Street.
Brown’s musical opened off-Broadway in 2002 and was made into a movie staring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan in 2014. The selection of the space at ArtWorks is interesting: It evokes an experimental theatre feel with the orchestra behind the audience and a three-quarter thrust stage created in the middle of the room. Second Stage’s music director, Amanda Hunter, has assembled an adept group of musicians to bring Brown’s score to life. Myron Harmon (piano), Christopher Marcellus (bass), Julian Denton (guitar), Brett Bentrup (violin), Domini Gialluisi (cello 1), and Min Jeong Kim (cello 2) really give the score flourish. Set designer Matt McKenna has brought in the trappings of a pier with ramps to give the performers different physical levels to illustrate the emotional highs and lows the show navigates.
“The Last Five Years” is a favorite of musical theatre lovers, and it is an oddity in a genre that leans toward big casts with huge dance numbers—because this show has a cast of two and no big dance scenes. In an additional twist, Second Star has a rotating cast with different combinations of performers taking the stage during the run. Last Thursday’s opening night saw LaRaisha Burnette as Cathy and Mike Maykish as Jamie. Christian Dionne (Burnett’s fiancé) also will play Jamie, and Sarah Holcomb will perform Cathy during the course of the run.
Brown’s concept is actually quite fascinating: Jamie and Cathy tell the story of their marriage in opposition to each other. Jamie starts at the beginning of their meeting and falling in love, while Cathy begins at the end with their divorce and parting. During the course of the show, they are in the same space at the same time only for their wedding. So we meet Cathy, an aspiring actress, and Jamie, a young novelist, on the rise. The show is inspired by Brown’s own failed marriage and his sympathies are clearly with Jamie. Jamie gets to have meteoric success as a novelist as narrated in the song “Moving Too Fast,” and Jamie gets to choose the marriage is over, which Cathy tells us in “Still Hurting.”
Maykish embodies the delighted but entitled nature of his character, who is thrilled beyond his wildest dreams. After all, he is young, brilliant, talented, well-connected, and handsome, so of course he gets the girl and the prize, too, right? Perhaps it is jealousy that makes it hard for me to like Maykish’s Jamie. Things that come so easily to him feel so unattainable to me, or perhaps it is his Jamie doesn’t have a drop of humility about his success or his trophy (Cathy).
Burnette’s Cathy, on the other hand, is an object of great empathy. (Is this gender bias showing? Possibly.) Burnette is gifted with show-stopping vocal prowess, but that can overshadow her gifts as an actress, which include a great sense of comedy. “A Summer in Ohio” and “Audition Sequence/Climbing Uphill” are two opportunities for Burnette to make us laugh—and she does. Brown’s lyrics are incredibly funny and feature former strippers with snakes named “Wayne,” gay little people playing Tevye, and other joys of being trapped in Ohio for summer rep instead of working in New York. But it is Burnette’s delivery that makes the laughter bittersweet: part laughing at the absurdity and part laughing with her to keep from crying. This is especially true for “Audition Sequence/Climbing Uphill.” It is awful hearing the internal monologue of an actress pounding the pavement and getting rejection after rejection … because art is hard. Such chosen dreams feel impossible because the likelihood of success is so slim. Perhaps that is why Maykish’s rendition of Jamie as so brazenly pleased by all of his easy wins feels like salt in the wound for Cathy and the audience. (Really? Random House is publishing your novel and you can’t even bring yourself to let “thank you” escape your lips? Really?)
Though Burnette and Maykish admirably and realistically bring the professional pressures on their marriage to life, this is a show about something much deeper: the person you choose to build a life with and making that matter more than anything in the world. From the first blush of excited young love, “Shiksa Goddess” and “Goodbye Until Tomorrow,” both capture euphoria beautifully. For Maykish it’s more of a fist-pumping “Yes! You!” sort of excitement, but for Burnette the delight is more like her feet aren’t touching the ground anymore. I am curious to see how the additional pairings approach the material differently.
Second Star Theatre Co. is clearly interested in experimenting with a range of artistic choices form venue to casting and more. Theatre has long been integral to the cultural life of our fair city, so the birth of Second Star at a time when we are facing loss is a glimmer of hope.