For decades Portland has been a hotbed of musical theater, with eager performers and enthusiastic audiences flocking to such centers of the great American popular art form as the old Portland Civic Theatre and The Musical Company, and suburban companies such as Lakewood and Clackamas Rep. Portland Opera hasn’t been immune to the pleasures and box-office jingle of a good musical, and during Chris Coleman’s long tenure as artistic director, large-scale musicals became eagerly anticipated annual events at Portland Center Stage, the city’s biggest theater company. Other theaters in town have dipped into the musical waters, too, and musicals, many of them original, have been regular visitors to the stages of the city’s two biggest children’s theaters, Northwest Children’s Theatre and Oregon Children’s Theatre.
But sometime in the almost 30 years since Broadway Rose set up shop, the center of Portland’s musical-theater gravity shifted a few miles south to the close-in suburb of Tigard, where the company founded by New York refugees Sharon Maroney and Dan Murphy produces musicals, musicals, and nothing but musicals. Some hit the sweet spot, a few miss the mark, but big or small, shows almost always have high production values, a selling point for its loyal audiences.
Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years, Broadway Rose’s current show – it streams through May 16 – is no exception. Like a few other productions since pandemic shutdowns began, it was taped under careful conditions on Broadway Rose’s stage, and its staging is simple but effective, with shifting cameras and effective lighting providing at least a semblance of live-theater vérité on your home screen. With just two performers, it’s a smart choice for video adaptation in socially distanced times – and with just two performers, it also lacks some of the kick-up-your-heels exuberance that’s one of the golden-age American musical’s biggest attractions.
Broadway Rose’s production, directed by Maroney with musical direction by Brian Michael, starts in shadow, two shapes hunkered in a red-blue-purple glow. Then the lights go up on a bright and whimsical big-city backdrop, like an oversized Hundertwasser painting, and on Kailey Rhodes as Cathy, a struggling actor in ripped blue jeans and mustard sweater and broken promises. “Jamie is over and Jamie is gone,” she sings plaintively. “Jamie’s decided it’s time to move on.”
Jamie (Jeff Rosick) is a once-struggling, now verging-on-breakthrough young novelist, and after five years of marriage and a widening gap between their ambitions and apparent prospects, he’s done with it. Exactly when and how this happens is a slowly unreeling story, with the reel unspooling in opposite directions: “Now” and “then” are mixed structures in The Last Five Years, with Cathy beginning essentially at the end of the relationship and moving backward, and Jamie making the journey from beginning to end. They perform mostly in isolation, meeting in the middle for the wedding. The structure can be both liberating and a trap, so schematic that it draws undue attention to itself. Brown based the musical on his own failed marriage to actor Theresa O’Neill, maybe a little too closely: It resulted in dueling lawsuits, and a few changes in story and lyrics.
The Last Five Years has been a popular show with theater people since its debut in 2001, partly for its economy of production and partly because a lot of singers like Brown’s post-Sondheim style. It takes a good singer to pull these sometimes astringent roles off, and that’s part of the attraction: It’s a challenge. Rhodes and Rosick rise to it, Rosick in particular, with a strong baritone that can sell a song without overselling it. I’ve never been as sold on Brown’s tunes and lyrics, which for the most part strike me as competent but without a lot of wit or spark. They’re at their best when they borrow from good predecessors: When Rosick sings about Jamie’s “singular impression things are moving too fast” it’s got a jazzy show-biz bump to it, and you can almost imagine Bob Fosse or John Kander waiting in the wings.
Twenty years on, the self-absorbed earnestness and assumptions of the play can seem a bit much, too. The Last Five Years is in part an ode to careerism and its costs and rewards, an obsession that snares Jamie and, in an inverse fashion, Cathy. “There’s a very good review in The New Yorker next week,” he declares enthusiastically at one point. “And it’s by John Updike.” In another scene, a left-behind Cathy laments: “Goodbye until tomorrow; goodbye until I crawl to your door.” It’s enough to make a body wince: Cathy, please don’t.
Then again, there are those production values, which include Carl Faber’s sensitive lighting, Mark Daniels’ smooth videography, that backdrop painted by Liz Carlson and Jo Farley, and a four-piece combo – music director Michael at piano, with cellist Quinn Liu, bassist/violinist Amy Roesler, and guitarist Eric Toner – that easily, urgently pushes the show along, never distracting but always where it ought to be when it ought to be there. Which, in the world of musical theater, is the sort of place you want to be.
Painting James Baldwin into the theatrical picture
PORTLAND CENTER STAGE AT THE ARMORY is offering a lot of onscreen options while live-theater spaces are shut down. Some are ticketed, some are pay-what-you-will, some are free. Some are full-length productions, like Rattlesnake Playwrights Theater’s 2018 video version of Dael Orlandsmith’s extraordinary solo show Until the Flood, which the author and actor also performed, enthrallingly, the following year at Portland Center Stage. Orlandersmith created her lightly fictionalized docudrama from interviews she conducted in Ferguson, Missouri, after the 2014 shooting of Black teenager Michael Brown by white policeman Darren Wilson – a killing that presaged the murder of George Floyd at the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, and all too many other killings that led eventually to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Several of Center Stage’s videos are documentary, explanatory, community projects, or behind-the-scenes discussions of projects or issues. One of the freebies is Public Art: A Portrait of James Baldwin, a seven-minute video featuring Portland musician and artist Daren Todd painting a roughly 10 x 10 foot mural of the great American writer. Todd did the painting inside Center Stage’s workshop three months ago (“It’s super-cold, and it’s January, and it’s pretty rainy”) to be installed on The Armory’s back double doors facing Northwest 10th Avenue: The mural, the first in a projected series of works to be commissioned by the theater company from Portland artists, will stay there until July.
Todd is a congenial host and a skilled painter, and the video’s seven minutes flow by swiftly (the painting process is sped up, like a Roadrunner-and-Coyote cartoon chase) and illuminatingly. “It’s going to be a portrait of James Baldwin,” Todd begins, standing before the prepared board and the scaffold-style metal ladder that allows him access to the whole expanse of the surface. “Hero of mine, icon, poet, author. Yeah.” To a queer trans Black contemporary artist, he explains, Baldwin is a forerunner and a model – “an inspiration and strength.”
Todd begins by blocking in a multi-colored pastel-toned backdrop of interlocking shapes: squares, rectangles, circles, triangles, curves. Later, wearing a warm jacket, a hood, and a red knit cap inside the theater’s chilly “workshop warehouse magical artist place,” he projects an image of Baldwin’s head onto the lower left section of the board (in theater terms, that would be downstage right) and begins to sketch it in. He’s not duplicating the projected image but using it as a sort of blueprint, to get the proportions right. “Photorealism is really not my style,” he comments. “I grew up on comic books and graphic novels, and so, heavy lines with bright expressive shapes, even in the face, is always going to be my go-to. And I think I knocked it out of the park with this one.”
Plus, a droll Shakespearean postscript
HOW KING LEAR SORT OF CAME TO BE. I laughed when What Shakespeare Actually Did During the Plague, a comic riff by the excellent Oregon writer and Shakespeare scholar Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, showed up in The New Yorker a while back. I laughed again when this droll video adaptation featuring actor Mark Nelson popped onscreen from PBS’s “Hippocrates Cafe.” With theaters idled by the Plague, the good Bard sits down at his desk, determined to write King Lear – and, like a storm on the heath, writer’s block settles in. The days tick by. On Day 25, for instance, Nelson/Shakespeare crumples up a sheet of paper, tosses it over his shoulder, and mutters, “Definitely too dark. Keep it light. Nobody wants to see a tragedy after a Plague.” Like Center Stage’s video of Daren Todd’s James Baldwin mural, this one’s a quick seven minutes. Go ahead. Click that link. As the Scottish Restaurant puts it in its little television jingle, you deserve a break today.