By Carolyn Hayes
The Encore Musical Theatre Company is once again flexing a different set of musical muscles. Its Encore on the Edge series provides a home for more unconventional, contemporary fare, encouraging devotees of the classic American musical to discover just how limitless and creative the genre can be. The second entry in the series, Jason Robert Brown’s “The Last Five Years,” brings familiar, simple storytelling into a cool new context: As directed by Daniel Cooney, the production is a musically gorgeous depiction of a romance from beginning to end, but it subverts expectations by also portraying it from end to beginning.
Jamie and Cathy (Steve DeBruyne and Thalia Schramm) meet, fall in love, marry, and watch their relationship crumble: This is the entirety of the plot, and how the audience witnesses it – through Jamie’s eyes, at least. However, through alternating songs and swapped perspectives, the play also takes the opposite view. That is, Cathy’s story begins at the breakup and plunges backward, reliving the milestones of their love in reverse order; by the end of the play, she’s fresh off the promise of their first date just as he calls it quits. Husband and wife have utterly opposing timelines, and their perspectives on the relationship are as different as their chronology, although Brown’s excellent script and thoughtful staging clearly ease the viewer through the unusual concept. What they do have in common is amazing music, which is the absolute pinnacle of this production. The songs have a contemporary feel and structure, especially in terms of shifting keys and meters, but the two performers and three accompanists (led by music director Brian E. Buckner) triumph as they make such loveliness seem so easy.
The structure is more than just unusual for its own sake; Cooney and company deftly highlight the contrasts ingrained in the characters’ stories and motivations that all but ensured the relationship’s failure. Seen at a distance, the narrative seems to encourage taking sides, first with brokenhearted Cathy against Jamie, whose megalomaniacal tendencies are all the more callous in a state of bullish infatuation, and later empathizing with frustrated Jamie against Cathy, whose innocent neediness wells up just as her husband can no longer stand it. The disconnect makes the viewer yearn for the characters’ connection, but when it happens – just once, at their wedding – the moment feels doubly wonderful and awful, as the characters perform a duet of forever and each other, so beautiful in the moment but as hollow as the lie it will prove to be.
The most notable feature of Steven V. Rice’s set design is the divided seating, with the playing space falling between two facing sections of chairs; with no back wall and the audience on opposite sides, the staging flows and circles, supplementing carefully orchestrated placement with big gestures that ensure the audience has something to watch no matter what the view. The setting is scaled back to blankness, but this isn’t the absence of choice so much as an opportunity to make creative use of the theater’s architecture and emphasize the performances, which Cooney does with aplomb.
DeBruyne’s Jamie is enthusiastically appealing as success comes to him in leaps and bounds, and he ably conveys to the audience his impatience of giving his partner what he would like in terms of support, while getting something else in return. Yet it’s Cathy with the harder row to hoe, written to be the more invested partner, and Schramm throws her character headlong into the relationship with desperate intent, willing to sacrifice her individual self to be part of this partnership. With masterful attention to the text she’s singing, Schramm’s performance bursts with self-conscious humor and rings with longing to maximum effect. The performers are wired with headset microphones (courtesy of sound designer Jess Preville), which keep the volume at a pleasant consistency; a few auditory glitches don’t assault the ears, and Brown’s vibrant and fast-moving lyrics are easily discerned.
The program notes that, in contrast to the several weeks’ rehearsal that would be the norm for preparing a musical, “The Last Five Years” was assembled in a staggering eight days. Accordingly, the Edge’s edges are sometimes rough: character work betrays untapped potential, hands in pockets give diminishing returns as a staging choice, and Rice’s lighting design hasn’t entirely bested the challenges of illuminating from more than one side. However, this production is ultimately successful on the strength of its music alone, on top of which are compassionate performances that further reward the attentive viewer. Aficionados of standard musicals may find this show to be an inviting entry point into some different fare, satisfying with beautiful songs even as it blows open the possibilities of the form.
‘The Last Five Years’
The Encore Musical Theatre, 3126 Broad St., Dexter. Thursday-Sunday through June 5. $22. 734-268-6200. http://www.theencoretheatre.org