Since its premiere in 2001, The Last Five Years has proved to be a remarkably enduring show, with successful runs both off Broadway and at many regional theaters. A movie version starring Anna Kendrick opens in February, so you won’t have to wait long to discover what the fuss is all about. But given the lousy track record of stage musicals being turned into films (Into the Woods being a welcome exception), the surer bet is to head down to Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre, which is presenting a lovely, at-times-heartbreaking production of the musical through February 15.
The story is familiar — boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy and girl drift apart — but the way it is told is quite creative. Jamie (Louis Pardo) tells the story of their romance, marriage, and breakup in chronological order, while Cathy (Ashley Fox Linton) gives her version starting at the sad ending and concluding at the giddy beginning. (They have one extremely moving scene together in the very middle.) With barely any dialogue, all the information is conveyed through clever, character-revealing songs.
Well, not quite all: There are also the extremely expressive faces, bodies, and voices of the two actors. Under the direction of Stephanie Coltrin, they beautifully convey both the attraction that pulls their characters (a successful novelist and an aspiring actress) together and the deeper psychological issues that drive them apart. They’re both very funny and, when appropriate, raw and vulnerable. The way the show is structured, we understand the dynamics of their failing relationship better than they do, which makes the situation all the sadder. Their lack of stage time together ultimately becomes a metaphor for a marriage in which the parties talk past, rather than communicate with, one another.
Mike Billings’s simple brick-wall set is used as a screen onto which videos and slides are projected. Happily, they are consistently evocative without becoming distracting. The five-piece band, led by Brent Crayon, is terrific, although the sound mix was a little off Sunday afternoon, with the playing sometimes overpowering the vocals. When songs are this good, you don’t want to miss a syllable.