This fascinating and very moving work succeeds in resetting one’s expectations for musical theater. Two actors, Elisha Schaefer and Emily Jewell, play a couple who marry and then divorce, only she tells the story in song from the moment of their break-up moving backwards, while he sings of their romance as it occurred, moving forward in time. The two stories overlap, logically, in the middle, through a powerfully observed proposal duet. An audience member unprepared for this unusual structure could be forgiven for being confused at the outset, but with a little time, the concept becomes clear, and by the end, the decision to tell the story in this way also feels justified.
The main reasons that The Last Five Years works so well are the wonderful songs by Jason Robert Brown, and the outstanding performances of Schaefer and Jewell, along with Ben Saunders work as their keyboard accompanist. The story is set in New York, circa the early 2000s, and the milieu is show business, serious publishing and theater division. Jamie is a writer who leaves Columbia’s MFA program when his first novel proves to be a hit. Cathy, his “Shiksa Goddess,” as Jamie’s first song has it, is an aspiring actress who is still struggling to transcend the grind of summer tours through places like Ohio. As the man’s career soars, the woman’s ego becomes more vulnerable. Tall, thin, and burning with talent and ambition, Elisha Schaefer lights up the stage with Jamie’s numbers, which manage to keep this adulterous winner sympathetic despite his flaws. As Cathy, Emily Jewell sings beautifully, and gives the piece its emotional center. Her despair at ever being more than along for Jamie’s wild ride towards fame is brutally poignant, and the fact that she is moving backwards, into a more innocent frame of mind, only makes it more so. This is one of the best shows of the spring, and, given that Elements Theater Collective has managed to make it free for all who wish to attend, you really shouldn’t miss it. There are still several opportunities to check it out, including a finale on Sunday, April 28 at the Faulker Room of the Central Library in Santa Barbara. For more information and to make a reservation, visit elementstheatrecollective.com.