When I first met Cori Najarian and Tyson Laemmel, it had nothing to do with the theater. Rather, they were shopping for clothes that Tyson would wear for their wedding and I helped them navigate the sales floor in the department store at which I sold men's tailored clothing. Our connection was immediate and definite: It seems you can't meet the couple without being instantly caught up in their charmed spell.
"So what's this got to do with anything?" you're probably wondering. Well, to be frank, the affection that you are almost certain to feel for the Laemmels when you meet them usually transfers to the Nashville stage, where they are definite audience favorites. And that relationship you have with them-however tenuous it might really be-helps to underscore their performances in The Last Five Years, now onstage at Street Theatre Company through May 27, making the impact of Jason Robert Brown's musical and the characters played by Cori and Tyson more deeply felt and somehow more eloquently expressed.
Playing a young married couple-Cathy Hyatt is a struggling young actress, her husband Jamie Wellerstein a successful new author, their conflicting artistic sensibilities and aspirations providing the conflict that takes its toll on their relationship-sounds like perfect casting for the Laemmels, and their idyllic offstage pairing clearly brings deeper resonance to their roles, making the impact of the show all the more emotional and heartfelt in the process.
Directed by Lauren Shouse, Street Theatre Company's production is unique in its casting: Cori and Tyson Laemmel play Cathy and Jamie for the final two weekends of the run, while Kacie Phillips and Ryan Greenawalt opened, to essentially unanimous and deserved acclaim, in the roles for the first two weekends. But here's an intriguing thought: How different would the show be if Cori Laemmel were paired with Ryan Greenawalt and Kacie Phillips played opposite Tyson Laemmel? It's staggering, isn't it?
While Brown's script remains the same, as does Andy Bleiler's gorgeously designed set, Steven Steele's evocative lighting, Lynda Cameron Bayer's lovely costumes and the superb accompaniment from the show's band under the musical direction of Rollie Mains, what you get with the two casts amounts to two different shows. Not only is there the change in the show's gravity given the personal relationship of the Laemmels, but the performance of the two casts-both of which deliver laudable portrayals-are vastly different, proving how organic the theatrical process really is.
The Last Five Years is a particular favorite of the theaterati-I bet there are a good many casting directors who'd be enormously rich if they had a dollar for every time they've heard "Climbing Uphill" at auditions-and the show's title alone can set off paroxysms of joy and delight among the theatrical set.
That unbridled enthusiasm for the show isn't necessarily misdirected or misguided. Certainly, Brown has created a thoroughly entertaining piece of musical theater that seems somehow unique, primarily due to his storytelling abilities. Cathy's story is told in reverse chronological order (when first we meet her, she is grieving the end of the couple's five year relationship), while Jamie's unfolds in chronological order (at curtain, he is celebrating the first moments of literary success while in the beginnings of his romance with Cathy). Obviously, the story of Cathy and Jamie comes from somewhere in real time (The Last Five Years is based on the relationship oF Brown and his first wife, supposedly) and the author's frank honesty, sharp dialogue and memorable musical score combine to make the show the hit that it has become in the eleven years since it first premiered in Chicago.