.BELLEVUE -- Microphones can't be that powerful.
This much is certain: The splendid two-person cast in Bellevue Society for the Arts' marvelous production of "The Last Five Years," which ended its run this weekend, has vocal power. That's my final answer, whether or not microphones helped amplify their voices. But it's hardly just noise that emanates from the pair's vocal chords when they're singing Jason Robert Brown's ("Parade," "13,") cleverly rhymed, heartfelt, smart and vivid lyrics.
Will Ujek (Jamie Wellerstein) and Lauren DePorre (Catherine Hiatt), backed by a live orchestra comprising piano, bass, guitar and violin that never drowns the performers out, convey achingly authentic emotion behind the words of this romantic musical...a show which won the Drama Desk award and was named among Time Magazine's 10 best shows of 2001. It was also made into a 2014 movie starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan.
Yes, "The Last Five Years" is a romantic tale, but not the kind you're used to seeing, complete with a happily-ever-after ending.
The quality of being unique is prized in the theater.This musical, which features mood-enhancing music that also deepens a character's emotions but the songs aren't particularly memorable, bears that trait with its different but effective structure.
The show tells the story of, as the title informs us, the last five years in the relationship of a successful writer and a struggling actress. The big difference: The story unfolds from Wellerstein's point of view starting with the beginning of the relationship and concluding at the end. From Hiatt's perspective, the tale begins at the end and works its way backwards.
Brown's structure makes us yearn for this recognizable couple to come together.
Brown's depiction of the dynamics of marriage are well observed, with matrimony's disagreements and moments of accord, times of tenderness and those of heated argument, bordering on dislike and even jealousy. In short, the author, lyricist and composer deftly captures the see-saw of marriage. If you're lucky enough to have a soulmate in your life, you'll find yourself nodding in familiarity. That is, unless your marriage is perfect, with narry a raised voice during the many years you and hubby have been together.
The musical covers a variety of emotions, running the gamut from heartbreak to jubilance, ambition, tenderness, exasperation and nervousness.
Ujek and DePorre deftly handle these feelings, making Brown's spoken and sung words sound like their own. They never overdo an emotion, no matter how forceful it's nature.
DePorre sets the tone. She soulfully captures a woman with a heavy heart, one that's drained her of energy as she moves lethargically and sings about "Still Hurting" after her husband of five years has left her for good. DePorre also conveys just as palpable frustration while singing lyrics such as "Jamie is probably feeling just fine, and I'm still hurting. What about lies, Jamie? What about things that you swore to be true? What about you, Jamie, what about you. Jamie is sure something wonderful died, Jamie decides it's his right to decide, Jamie's got secrets he doesn't confide. And I'm still hurting."
She's frustrated...and heartbroken. She sings:"Jamie is over and where can I turn? Covered with scars I did nothing to earn."
DePorre also imbues her character with hope and charisma at appropriate times and listens intently during a playful, tender moment between the couple.
Ujek, who has an equally strong, expressive voice and can hit soft, high notes, conveys a dreaminess, charm and zest for life that endears him to us. But, without making the character a complete jerk, he also captures the character's ego that hurts the relationship.
During the song "Moving Too Fast," Ujek's Wellerstein is drunk with happiness; everything seems so perfect, he feels a sense of imbalance and dizziness, as though he's on a roller coaster of ecstasy.
Ujek is also irresistibly playful during a song that could use some cutting, ending with lyrics about how lucky Wellerstein feels to be in love with Hiatt.
Director Monica Siesel finds the tenderness in the show and positions the actors in ways that convey their love for each other. Siesel, who doubles as the set designer, has created a playing space with minimal set pieces that indicate locale. The set pieces also allow Siesel to highlight the characters and accentuate their emotions, such as when the actors stand on a table.
A set too large and detailed would smother this intimate, emotionally heartfelt chamber musical.
The uncredited lighting design (Katherine Gauthier's listed as "light board operator") includes a red backdrop, which is always appropriate for romantic tales.
The costumes correspond to the characters' mood. In the beginning, when Hiatt is heartbroken, she's clad mostly in black and a red (signifying romance) sweater; she's sad for her loss and yearns for the love to return.
By contrast, Wellerstein wears white, symbolizing his happiness as, from his perspective, the story starts with the beginning of the couple's relationship. Toward the end, both are clad in black; the marriage isn't going well.
Just as real-life romances don't always have a happy ending, the one in "The Last Five Years" doesn't.
It's the kind of change-of-pace romantic play the theater needs to reflect real life. And Bellevue Society for the Arts should be commended for mounting a convincing, sensitive production.