Plano — In 2015, Noelle Chesney started Plano-based Brick Road Theatre with a mission to produce quality musical theater. While there’s no lack of musicals in North Texas, her programming so far, and for the rest of the 2016 season, gives an idea of what kind of work interests her.
Last year BRT produced the four-couple version of Jones and Schmidt’s I Do! I Do! and Sondheim’s difficult Company. The 2016 season begins with Jason Robert Brown’s second most-loved work, The Last Five Years (after Songs for a New World, which musical theater people go gaga for), which has three more shows this weekend; and closes with Adam Guettel’s stunning, Tony-winning The Light in the Piazza, which has only been done once professionally in these parts, by Theatre Three back in 2008 (Wendy Welch, who won local raves for playing Margaret, will direct Brick Road’s production). In between, showing that BRT isn’t opposed to lighter fare—and perhaps bigger box office receipts—is Nunsense.
Most of these are tough shows, and Chesney has been proving her commitment to quality by hiring such directors as Linda Leonard and actors like Janelle Lutz, who makes her third BRT appearance in The Last Five Years. This production, which happens in the Cox Building Playhouse on the campus of the Courtyard Theatre in Plano, has a combo of five musicians led by musical director Cody Dry (keyboards), plus a violinist (Danny Anchondo, Jr.), two cellists (Will Hughes and Ivana Biliskov), and Patrick Emile on guitar and bass.
Lutz is Catherine, playing opposite Trey West as Jamie. The title refers to the length of their relationship, and this two-person, through-sung musical is ingeniously structured, as Jamie moves chronologically forward through the relationship and Catherine goes backwards, starting with the end of the affair. Most of the songs are sung by one of them, except for a few in the middle when we see them being happy together. There was a 2014 film version with Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan, and Brown had a cameo. (Like films of musicals do, it added characters and locations.)
This musical demands careful listening to the lyrics to understand the stories of both characters. Jamie is an up-and-coming novelist and Catherine is a struggling stage actor who does summer stock and endless auditioning. In short, they spend a lot of time away from each other, and each is passionate about a career in the arts—performing and writing—that require above-and-beyond support and understanding from a partner. That sentiment is painfully explored in Jamie’s “If I Didn’t Believe You” and in Catherine’s “I Can Do Better Than That,” both of which happen near the end of the 90-minute, intermissionless show. (The musical was inspired by Brown’s first marriage.)
Brown is a master at storytelling through song, and some of these act as intense soliloquies, others as diary entries about life moments worth celebrating, even with tongue firmly planted in cheek (Cathy’s “Summer in Ohio”), or regretting (Jamie’s “Moving Too Fast”).
It’s true of every theatrical production that having the right director and performers is crucial, but in such an intimate show with only two performers, singers who can capture the nuances of Brown’s music and lyrical writing are necessary.
Director Linda Leonard gets that in Lutz—who has already given one monumental performance this year as Judy Garland in Uptown Players’ The End of the Rainbow—who can break hearts in a song like “Still Hurting,” and navigate crazed comedy with brutal honesty in “A Summer in Ohio” or “Climbing Uphill/Audition Sequence.”
West is uneven. The humor and timing in a number like “The Schmuel Song” and the pathos in “Nobody Needs to Know” are spot on, but at the performance viewed, his vocals were shaky on sustained notes and in the trickier dynamics of “Moving Too Fast.”
Many productions have the actors on a bridge, starting at opposite ends and traversing to the other side as the narrative moves. In this black box space, set designer Alex Krus has them on right-angled platforms, with the audience on two sides at the opposite end of the theater (the viewer is still very close to the action). Lutz handles costumes; here they change for almost every scene/song, as one performer is offstage while the other is on.
This was my first time at Brick Road, and this production drives excitement for future work; I look forward to seeing Light in the Piazza later this year. The group is still finding its footing, and Chesney tells me that the plan is to become an Actor’s Equity Association Small Professional Theatre within five years, occasionally using Guest Artist contracts until then (Lutz is an AEA Membership Candidate).
Here’s hoping they can keep on this path of musicals that are less frequently performed.