There's only one more weekend to catch North Raleigh Arts & Creative Theatre's production of Jason Robert Brown's musical The Last 5 Years, but make sure you have it on your calendar. The minimalist, abstract look at the birth and death of a love story—not necessarily in that order—is an emotional drainer filled with catchy tunes.
The Last 5 Years has an unusual structure that bears explaining. Half the scenes examine a five-year relationship from the point of view of Cathy (Mary Reilly, who alternates performances with Lexie Hallaman), while every other scene is from the perspective of her husband Jamie (Jaret Preston, alternating nights with Jon Todd), with the other actor either off-stage or facing away from the audience. Cathy's scenes are in reverse order, from the relationship's end to its beginning, while Jamie's move forward from beginning to end. The actors and their characters interact directly only in the midpoint of the show during Jamie and Cathy's wedding; otherwise we're either watching them come together or fall apart.
It's unsurprising to learn that writer/composer Jason Robert Brown (Songs for a New World) drew inspiration from his own divorce (incidentally, his ex-wife threatened legal action until some of the character details and one of the songs were changed). There's a decidedly bitter undercurrent to the story; Jamie experiences overnight success as a novelist that Cathy is unable to enjoy as her acting career falters. Reilly captures how Cathy's heartbreak is the product of years of bitterness and insecurity, while Preston conveys how Jamie's youthful enthusiasm withers, to chilling effect.
The pain of the material is levied by the wit and variety of the score, a combination of piano by David Oberst and cello by 16-year-old Ryan Rowe, who are visible in silhouette behind a screen throughout the production. The numbers include everything from mournful chamber music to gospel to salsa (the witty, wonderful "Shiksa Goddess"). Brown's score revels in Sondheim-esque wordplay ("If you've got a powerful connection to your firearm collection/ I say draw a bead and shoot") that cuts to the heart of the characters' psyches. Both Cathy and Jamie are sympathetic and loathsome in equal measure, and by the end, you want to both hug them and smack them.
The Last 5 Years is currently enjoying a revival Off-Broadway, and there are plans for a film with Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan, but the Raleigh production is worthwhile on its own. Its story might be told in an unusual order, but the painful emotions it explores are all too typical. Even in its most painful moments, its songs will get stuck in your head.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The English speaking, and singing, world."