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Forward and backward with The Last Five Years'

March 16, 2016
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Intimate musical both heart-warming and heart-wrenching

Regarding the theater, most of us have a very specific idea of what a musical is. Musical theater elicits images of huge sets and massive casts singing big songs sheer spectacle across the board. And for the most part, that's what these shows are.

However, most is not all. There are some that choose to approach their musical storytelling in a different way, operating from a stripped-down and spare aesthetic. These shows are musical as micro rather than macro, telling stories of small truth rather than tales just a bit too big to feel real.

'The Last Five Years' is just such a musical. Penobscot Theatre Company is presenting their production of Jason Robert Brown's show, with direction by Michelle Colvin and music direction from Ben McNaboe, through March 29 at the Bangor Opera House.

This unique show follows the arc of a single relationship in an unconventional way; each person is traveling in a different direction. Basically, one starts at the origin of the relationship and moves toward the end, while the other starts at the relationship's end and goes back to the beginning, their paths only fully intersecting as their timelines do.

Essentially, it's the story of the tumultuous times of Jamie Wellerstein (Dominick Varney) and Cathy Hiatt (Brianne Beck). Jamie is a novelist whose work is beginning to draw a lot of attention, while Cathy is a struggling actress. We begin with the end, as Cathy spends her first moments bemoaning the relationship's end ('Still Hurting'). Meanwhile, at the other end, we get to bear witness as Jamie sees Cathy for the first time ('Shiksa Goddess').

From there, we watch both as Cathy slowly returns to a happier, more hopeful time and as Jamie endures the gradual unravelling of his relationship. Cathy's forlorn sadness gives way to the bright-eyed ingnue hopeful that she was. In turn, Jamie's early writing success and general happiness is dimmed by the pressures he feels and an increasing ego.

While the two are often on-stage at the same time, only once do they truly come together. Their respective journeys arrive together at their wedding day, when Jamie and Cathy finally share a song (the lovely 'The Next Ten Minutes') and a brief moment of simultaneous happiness before continuing onward (or backward) to the end (or the beginning).

As you might imagine, 'The Last Five Years' is a very intimate show. However, just because it is spare does not mean it is small. Despite a cast of two and a five-person orchestra, it manages to invert that intimacy and magnify the minutiae of real relationships into something much more epic in scope.

However, one of the realities of this kind of stripped-down show is that considerable pressure is placed on the shoulders of the cast. With just two people sharing the load, this show demands much of the couple standing at its center. There are plenty of talented performers out there who would falter under such a weight. These performers do no such thing, proving more than up to the task.

Varney and Beck are veterans of the PTC stage, each having worked there steadily in recent years, though their personal friendship long predates their artistic relationship. Echoes of that lengthy friendship can be felt in their performances here; they use their own history to inform the history of these two young lovers and their own intimacy to inform that of Jamie and Cathy. Frankly, it's difficult to write about the performances separately, so completely and thoroughly are they tied together. Whether journeying from shattered to whole or vice versa, both actors inform each step on the path with thoughtful truth.

It doesn't hurt that they both have fantastic voices, capable of meeting the daunting requirements of Brown's wide-ranging songs. The sheer variety of the music both stylistically and emotionally demands performers of considerable range (in all senses of the word). To no one's surprise, Varney and Beck are possessed of just such a range, filling the room with the simple story of Jamie and Cathy.

Director Michelle Colvin had a difficult task of her own. Bringing the stage to life with just two people would be tough enough, but two people whose paths rarely directly cross? Still, Colvin guided the actors through the space with a brisk regularity neither actor was left to fend for him- or herself for too long and created an engaging dynamic from a show that could easily become visually static. Despite their separation, Colvin never allows us to lose sight of the connection. Musical director McNaboe and his band performed beautifully, creating a rich and full sound that synced nicely with the vocal work of the cast. In a show that is almost entirely sung, the music drives the story McNaboe and company prove capable at that helm.

Tricia Hobbs's scenic design is dominated by a massive clock at stage's center; it looms over the action as a constant reminder of time's inexorable march and how that march changes us. It's the kind of flexible set that is ideal for a show like this, matching its minimal nature. Scout Hough and Brandie Larkin also embrace that minimalism in their lighting and sound designs, respectively Hough's use of color is particularly evocative. And Kevin Koski once more captures the spirit of a show's characters with his costumes.

'The Last Five Years' isn't your typical musical fare. It's not big production numbers and flashy music. It's simple and bittersweet, allowing room for happiness and sadness both. Equal parts heart-wrenching and heart-warming, it's an engaging theatrical experience featuring two of Bangor's best.

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