By Rob Hubbard; 2/11/2014
The arc of a love affair. It's a phrase coined by singer-songwriter Paul Simon and also the focus of Jason Robert Brown's imaginative musical, "The Last Five Years." It looks at the ascent and descent of a relationship from two different directions.
While novelist Jamie takes the audience from his initial infatuation with musical theater actor Cathy through their courtship, wedding, marriage, decline and divorce, Cathy reverses that chronology. As if watching a backward film of a building's demolition, we experience her journey from despair to hopefulness while Jamie's path leads us from the excitement of a new sensation to a disappointed goodbye.
The two-person show being produced by Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company is often like a song cycle with theatrical enhancements, the performers taking turns delivering musical monologues, many addressed to the invisible other. It requires a cast that clearly believes in the material and is willing to sell it with plenty of emotional honesty. Matt Rein and Sarah Shervey do that, offering convincing portrayals and earning the audience's understanding, if not always its sympathy. Under the solid direction of Kevin Dutcher, they make it an arc worth following.
Shervey has the more difficult role as Cathy, who begins the show with a post-breakup torch ballad and goes on to bring about the most radical shifts in mood, answering Jamie's early exuberance with heavy-hearted hopes of keeping their marriage together and, finally, emerging smiling and freshly in love immediately after Jamie makes clear the end is near.
In her Twin Cities professional theater debut, Shervey establishes herself as a talent to watch, handling a demanding role with a deft blend of sweetness, pathos and vocal chops. Her tenderness-to-tantrum transitions are nuanced, her insecurities inviting our compassion, especially during a very funny audition at which her frenzied internal dialogue bubbles to the surface ("I suck! I suck! I suuuuuuck!").
But Rein also faces a stiff challenge, for Jamie's narcissism makes him considerably less likable as the story unfolds (or, in Cathy's case, folds up). As both characters are in their 20s, Jamie's self-centeredness and poor judgment sometimes seem forgivable, and Rein makes him engaging even at prickly points. But Brown also asks a lot of this character vocally. While Rein showed he has the range to reach all the notes, sustaining them strongly proved problematic.
Brown's score employs blues, Latin jazz and several types of pop ballad, but it's not bursting with memorable melodies. Yet the show's innovative construction makes the music more powerful, particularly during the lone duet at its center, a wedding song with a sad undertow. After that, we soon realize that we've reached the apex of the arc and are starting to revisit territory, now seeing it from the other's perspective. The emotionally conflicted conclusion proves touching, and will likely leave you impressed with Brown's imagination and the cast that brings this challenging work to life.