Steven Stanley’s StageSceneLA is changing, with exciting new features and an all new look by debuting August 12.

In the meantime, thank you for visiting this temporary site, on which you will find reviews of all currently running productions, as well as some which have closed recently.

Visit the new StageSceneLA starting August 12 and the first thing you’ll find will be all the latest reviews and interviews, beginning with the most recent.

All reviews will now be “tagged,” allowing StageSceneLA readers to make a quick list of each and every “Now Playing” production as well as those tagged with a “WOW!.” You will also be able to find reviews by “genre,” “location,” and other tags. Interviews will be tagged as well, allowing for quick accessing of all StageSceneLA interviews.

A brand new search function will allow readers to find any play or musical by name, as well as any reviews in which a particular actor performed, which a particular director directed, or which a particular designer designed, etc.

The new StageSceneLA will continue to feature complete lists of all StageSceneLA Award winners over the past six years—with our 2010-12 Awards to be announced mid-September. StageSceneLA will no longer feature listings of upcoming and unreviewed productions, the better to concentrate on its forte: Spotlighting The Best In Southern California Theater in its reviews and interviews.

Review archives will be restored gradually—hopefully by the end of September 2011. In the meantime, please feel free to send an email request for a PDF file of any previous StageSceneLA review to

Thanks as always for visiting Steven Stanley’s StageSceneLA: Spotlighting The Best In Southern California Theater. And thanks especially for your patience during this exciting period of transition.

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Saturday, July 16, 2011



His story starts with their first meeting and ends with a farewell note left behind with his wedding ring. Her story begins when she finds the ring and reads the note. Only at the halfway point do the two 20something characters’ onstage lives coincide; only then do they sing to each other, look each other in the eyes, touch.

As any musical theater aficionado will tell you, the show in question is Jason Robert Brown’s semi-autobiographical chamber musical The Last Five Years, quite possibly the most exquisite two-character song cycle ever written, and my own favorite intimate musical of the past decade.

The Last Five Years returns to Los Angeles as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival, and if this latest production doesn’t reach the heights of previous incarnations, there is at least one very good reason not to miss it.

Writer-composer Brown tells the story of aspiring actress-singer Catherine Hiatt and up-and-coming novelist Jamie Wellerstein entirely in song, with the exception of some one-sided phone calls and a sequence which has Jamie reading from his novel.

From Cathy’s point of view, emotions range from the heartbreak of her opening number, “Still Hurting” to the joyous optimism of her last (i.e. chronologically first) song, “Goodbye Until Tomorrow.” “I’m Still Smiling” captures the mixed emotions of a woman hoping against hope for her marriage to survive and railing against a man who won’t even stay with his wife “on her fucking birthday.” “I’m A Part Of That” is Cathy’s attempt to find some satisfaction in being the wife of a celebrity author. “A Summer In Ohio” has Cathy singing about doing summer stock “with a gay midget named Karl, playing Tevia and Porgy,” and an audition sequence has her trying out for a musical with a lousy accompanist or a padded résumé. “I Can Do Better Than That” is Cathy’s vow that her budding relationship with Jamie will be better than any of the failed ones she’s had before.

Jamie, on the other hand, starts out with a series of upbeat, up-tempo songs. There’s “Shiksa Goddess,” which has him “waiting through Danica Schwartz and Erica Weiss and the Handelman twins and Heather Greenblatt, Annie Mincus, Karen Pincus and Lisa Katz and Stacy Rosen, Ellen Kaplan, Julie Silber and Janie Stein” on his way to the “cute goyishe maid” called Cathy Hiatt. “Moving Too Fast” is Jamie’s ode to the fast life of an up-and-coming writer who’s found “a woman I love” and (even better) “an agent who loves me.” “The Schmuel Song” is Jamie’s Christmas/Chanukah number, a tour-de-force moment which has the aspiring storyteller singing in the voice of a Russian-Jewish tailor named Schmuel. Later, as things between the couple begin to deteriorate, “If I Didn’t Believe In You” is Jamie’s last-ditch effort to convince Cathy he’s on her side and “Nobody Needs To Know” has him singing to the woman he’s cheating on Cathy with, feeling guilty as hell about, and unable to resist.

In the role of Jamie, L.A. newcomer Rory Alexander sings well and has a number of quite effective moments (an amusingly performed “Shiksa Goddess” and “The Schmuel Song” in particular) but his performance could benefit from a more layered interpretation of the character’s complex mix of big ego and goofy charm and a more authentic rendering of Jamie’s sense of anger and loss as his marriage crumbles. Bill Hemmer’s direction is solid and respectful of the material, but he might have found more imaginative onstage connections between Cathy and Jamie despite their being in different time zones. Also, a few scene changes seem deliberate pauses for applause rather than the swift, smooth transitions that Brown intended. Ashley Cuellar’s Cathy, on the other hand, is about as splendid as can be, making the rising musical theater star’s performance the very best reason to catch this imperfect but still powerful The Last Five Years.

Cuellar starts her character’s reverse journey with a bang, crying real tears as a dazed and destroyed Cathy discovers the note and ring Jamie has left behind. In “See I’m Smiling,” Cuellar captures Cathy’s full range of emotions, from hopefulness to confusion to rage. In a highly original touch, Cuellar’s Cathy sings “I’m A Part Of That” martini in hand, a wife who’s had one drink too many as her husband signs copy after copy at a book reading that has her feeling completely left out. As Cathy’s story moves from despair to anger to optimism to joy, Cuellar seems actually to turn younger in front of our eyes. Vocally, The Last Five Years gives the soprano a chance to show off a wow of a belt that recent roles in Children Of The Night and USS Pinafore haven’t explored, though we do get to hear Cuellar’s gorgeous “legit” voice in Cathy’s audition number, “Till You Come Home To Me,” conceived here as if being sung by the kind of perfect 1950s wife Cathy is unwilling to become. Comedically, vocally, and dramatically, Cuellar puts her own personal stamp on Cathy—and unforgettably so.

Several directorial touches work quite well, including having Jamie and Cathy flip-flop stage positions mid-show following their lone meeting halfway through. Since the two characters have rarely been onstage at once, and never in the same timeframe, this one sequence in which they touch, kiss, and share a wedding dance proves particularly powerful. On the other hand, having Jamie nearly fully dressed all the way down to his black leather shoes for “Nobody Needs To Know” doesn’t match lyrics which suggest that Jamie is in still lying in bed next to an unseen paramour and then getting back in bed with her at the end.

Director Hemmer has designed the set, and though it is simple in the extreme (just a pair of chairs on a bare black box stage), this is not necessarily a liability, The Last Five Years being more about the music than anything else. On the other hand, slide projections behind Cathy and Jamie work better in theory than in practice, proving a distraction more often than not. Matt Richter’s lighting is highly effective as are Garrison Burrell’s costume choices, particularly Cathy’s half dozen or so outfits, which mirror the timeframe she’s in as well as her emotions at the time. (Burrell is also responsible for set dressing and props.)

Musical director Ron Snyder plays keyboards alongside violinist Nancy Kuo, guitarist Yuichiro Kevin Asami and bassist Jay Rubttom, a larger than usual orchestra and a highly competent one. Though I’ve seen several productions with a lone pianist, and one with an interesting piano/guitar mix, the original six-piece orchestrations featured not one but two cellos, and here, perhaps because all four other instruments are present, the lack of even a single cello is felt, particularly by anyone familiar with the Original Cast recording.

Rebecca Schoenberg is assistant director and stage manager. David R. Carpenter is credited with set construction and Orlando de la Paz with graphic design.

Though this Bright Eyes Production of The Last Five Years may not reach the heights of previous incarnations, it is worth seeing as an introduction to its luminous leading lady as well as for the musical’s intrinsic pleasures, which are many indeed.

The Lounge 2 Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles.
--Steven Stanley
June 17, 2011