by Charles Kruger
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Cathy and Jamie are two young New Yorkers, an actress and a novelist, who fall in love and marry fast. As Jamie’s star rises from recent MFA grad student to first-time novelist, to New York Times Bestseller, to the Toast of the Town, Cathy struggles to keep her spirits up while performing on tour and doing summer stock in Ohio.The story of this ill-starred romance (we know from the beginning that the marriage will break up after five years) is told back and forth in alternating songs. Although the sequence is linear, Cathy’s story begins with the breakup and moves backwards, while Jamie’s version starts from the beginning.
In spite of the unusual structure, this is not new territory, or particularly exciting, except that composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown has developed this idea with consummate skill, offering one beautiful song after another, constructed to the highest standards. And Broadway performers Margo Seibert and Zak Resnick deliver each one with polished perfection. The result is irresistible.
Audience members may well be reminded of a musical hit from the 60’s, “I Do, I Do,” by the great Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt (most famous for “The Fantasticks”) which starred Broadway legends Mary Martin and Robert Preston. “I Do, I Do” also told the story of a marriage in the form of alternating songs by two extraordinarily capable performers.
The comparison to Jones and Schmidt is apt. Just as they did with “The Fantasticks” and “I Do, I Do,” Jason Robert Brown has taken a simple, uncomplicated idea and made it memorable and enchanting by playing it out with a rigorous adherence to excellence in every detail.
Director Michael Berresse understands that this work is best served by simplicity and transparency, and this vision is carried out in all the design elements, from Tim Mackabee’s minimalist scenic design, to Callie Floor’s carefully coordinated costumes, and Robert Wierzel’s unobtrusive lighting. Matt Castle provides lively and well-articulated musical direction.
The effectiveness of this simple approach depends on the excellence of the two performers, and Margo Seibert and Zak Resnick are wonderful. They play Cathy and Jamie with a shining emotional clarity and directness that is completely engaging. The composition of the songs offers ample opportunity for lyricism and belting, and they can handle it all. While all of the songs are great, each actor is given a particularly good bittersweet show stopper: In “A Summer in Ohio,” Cathy details her misery playing in summer stock while her husband basks in his New York success. With “Shiksa Goddess,” Jamie tells of his past relationships before meeting Kathy and happily “breaking his [Jewish] mother’s heart,” a detail he reveals with uncontrollable giggles.
These are extraordinary songs, given extraordinary performances, and a good time is guaranteed.
“The Last Five Years” plays at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater through June 5th. For further information, click here.
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“The Last Five Years” by Jason Robert Brown. Produced by A.C.T. Director: Michael Berresse. Music Direction: Matt Castle. Scenic Design: Tim Mackabee. Costume Design: Callie Floor. Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel. Sound Design: Kai Harada.
Jamie Wellerstein: Zak Resnick. Cathy Hiatt: Margo Seibert.