The stars aligned at the Star Palace last night for Ashley Taylor and, by extension, the strong inaugural performance of the Organic Theater Factory.
For years, the hard-working Taylor has tackled one character role after another on the Fresno community theater scene — from Mary Sunshine in “Chicago” to Gertrude the Bird in “Seussical” — as a solid performer. But something special happens in Jason Robert Brown’s intimate musical “The Last 5 Years.” As Cathy Hiatt, the struggling actress whose story of a disillusioned marriage is told in reverse chronological disorder, Taylor gives a transluscent performance. Her voice is absolutely gorgeous — there were times when I closed my eyes and thought about how often it matched the level of Sherie Rene Scott’s version on the original cast recording.
Just as impressive is the way Taylor mines the emotional territory of her character, never overplaying the sentiment or joking up the giddy moments, always relating on a fiercely human level. She’s a wonderful fit for the role, and she gives an already moving play even more of an impact.
My singling Taylor out for special notice isn’t in any way meant to slight her partner on stage, Peter Allwine, or the production overall, which has a scrappy, low-key charm. It’s just that when it comes to Taylor, it seems this is one of those rare times for an actor when everything truly clicks — performance, type, spirit — and it’s a beautiful thing to behold.
Director Danielle Jorn embraces the new company’s guerrilla-theater philosophy by staging the show in a deliberately minimalist way. The excellent four-piece band (Seth Scott, David Sarkisian, Alexis Holladay and Peter McMullen), ably directed by Anthony Taylor, sits at the back of the shallow raised platform of the stage in full view of the audience. The only “scenery” consists of the large tower speakers squatting in front of the stage that provide rudimentary platforms on which the performers can perch. Jorn relies instead on slide projections that give us glimpses of various settings (a book store, a Christmas tree, a pier). There are few props, and the costumes (uncredited in the program) have a basic, pulled-from-the-closet, real-life feel.
“The Last 5 Years” is tough to pull off because there’s practically no interaction between the two characters on stage at all. It has to be that way because of the dizzying way that Brown intertwines their chronologies. While Cathy’s story goes backwards, beginning with the breakup of her marriage, that of hot young novelist Jamie goes forward, with him starting head over heels in love. Almost entirely sung through, the production requires diligent diction and a keen sense of storytelling. (It helps that Brown’s music and lyrics are superb.)
Allwine, as Jamie, handles the (extremely) tough vocal demands of the role well, and he has some fine moments performing his solo numbers, even “The Schmuel Song,” my least favorite. (Full disclosure: Two years ago, when he played the role of Jamie in a larger production by the now defunct Aithon Theatre Company, Allwine terrorized me with a shimmying move in that song so egregious that I have flashbacks, and I was so happy that he toned way back on that approach in this production that I silently gave thanks to the Jason Robert Brown gods.) I don’t think the character of Jamie will ever be a perfect fit for the talented Allwine — mostly because the actor struggles with conveying the arrogance of the character. Jamie should be a charismatic jerk, and Allwine has problems with the jerk part.
Jorn has a knack for finding the emotional core of a song. But in some ways, the direction seems a little static. Jorn has a tendency to plant her actors on stage and let them stay there, almost in an opera-soloist stance. We needed a little more room for these characters to roam. Just because they don’t interact with each other doesn’t mean they can’t interact with their surroundings, the bareness of which at times seems limiting. I appreciate the innovation of the projected images, but Jorn relies at times too much on them to set a scene. Jorn also has a tendency to punctuate the lyrics with obvious blocking. (We get a literal interpretation of being “out of control,” say.)
Still, these are quibbles in a particularly fine show. When Taylor sings “I’m a Part of That,” it’s touching. And when she sings, in the last number, “I loved you so,” it’s a moment that ranks as positively heart-breaking. For fans of small musicals, it isn’t to be missed. This is theater that is small in scale but enormous in impact.