Many a musical has played St. Louis during the last five years, but few theater memories remain as vivid as the 2004 Rep Studio staging of The Last 5 Years, Jason Robert Brown's semi-autobiographical song cycle about the missteps in a young marriage. Two weeks after that show closed, New Jewish Theatre opened an exuberant production of William Finn's musical Falsettos. Now five years later New Jewish — which rarely mounts musicals — is presenting The Last 5 Years with the same finesse and expertise (indeed, the same director, Edward M. Coffield) that made Falsettos so satisfying. This current staging confirms that The Last 5 Years is indeed a show to cherish. Playful yet serious, exuberant yet tender, simple yet labyrinthine — there hasn't been a more ambitious or rewarding musical in recent memory.
Ambitious, because of the show's intricate structure. The two-character evening begins at the end. Alone with her demons, Cathy blames Jamie for the dissolution of a marriage that, as she sees it, only died because he decreed it so. As soon as Jamie appears, the time frame leaps back half a decade to their first date; we meet a giddy young would-be author obsessed with the notion of loving someone like Cathy. "You are the story I should write," he sings. As Jamie becomes an ever more successful writer, he springs forward to inevitable carnage; Cathy reverses the story as she backpedals her way from despair to the initial promise of that wondrous first date. The only time the two characters intersect is on their marriage day.
"It's a challenge, it's a challenge," Jamie sings as he describes the need to resist temptation after he's married. But everything about The Last 5 Years is a challenge. Audiences must pay attention to a keener degree than most theatergoers are unaccustomed. For the production team, the first of numerous challenges is space. You might not think that a two-character show (which is mostly a series of one-character songs) would need much space. But some of the already limited stage space is taken up by the three musicians: musical director David Horstman at the piano, violinist Laura Sexauer and Sara Sitzer, whose cello rumbles like the storm clouds that hover over this doomed marriage.
Caitlyn Ayer's scenic design eats up a little more space. The title page of the playbill shows the Brooklyn Bridge, which helps set the locale. There's a massive bridge onstage too, but its center is missing. Symbolically, there's no connection between these two great pieces of mortar and stone on stage left and right.
With so little room onstage, the actors instead make the most of a different kind of space. Even though Brown's glorious music almost never stops, the two performers find lots of space between the lyrics. Every emotion that needs to be conveyed is evoked without slowing the pace, sometimes without even taking a breath. Under the keen eye of director Coffield, both actors excel. April Strelinger's Cathy is at times wrenchingly vulnerable. Cathy, we learn, is at best a competent — not a brilliant — actress. In summoning the courage to expose the insecurities that come with being unexceptional, Strelinger evokes a kind of valor. Jeffrey M. Wright's ascendant Jamie is smart and winning. Wright is at his most assured when Jamie is being sincere — even if that means sincerely egoistic. If Wright hasn't yet tapped into some of Jamie's self-deprecating humor, neither did the actor who played the role at the Rep five years ago. But then, as Jamie himself tells us, it's a challenge.
Indeed it is — for all of us. The Last 5 Years lasts only 85 minutes, but we leave the theater awash in emotions. To see this show for the first time can be both memorable and unsettling; to see it again is enriching.
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