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Theater Review: "The Last Five Years"

Jason Robert Brown (composer of the musicals “Parade” and “The Bridges of Madison County”) wrote “The Last Five Years” in response to a broken relationship he experienced.
Photo credit:
mtishows.com

Who hasn’t had at least one relationship that seemed great and ended badly?

Jason Robert Brown (composer of the musicals “Parade” and “The Bridges of Madison County”) wrote “The Last Five Years” in response to a broken relationship he experienced.

“Five Years” is now in a fine but very short run through Aug. 21 at Hillcrest’s ion theatre, as part of its “Off the Radar” series.

This show is more of a two-handed rock opera than musical: songs alone tell the story, without dialogue. In addition, the only cast members are the two people involved: rising novelist Jamie (Cory Hibbs) and struggling actress Cathy (Sarah Alida LeClair).

If you’re one of those who run screaming from opera, fear not: Brown’s composition style is pop-rock, his lyrics distinctly theatrical and, for want of a better term, personal. It’s impossible not to identify with both of these two people who have – or will – hurt each other.

The other curious thing is that the characters tell the story in different order. Jamie tells his side from beginning to end. Cathy tells hers from the breakup back, and the first song in the show is a heartbreaker: Cathy singing “I’m Still Hurting.” The title almost says it all, but included are these lines:

Jamie arrived at the end of the line

Jamie's convinced that the problems are mine

Jamie is probably feeling just fine

And I'm still hurting

Meanwhile, Jamie (five years earlier) rhapsodizes about meeting his “Shiksa Goddess” whose main attraction seems to be that she is “not from Hebrew school.”

But no marriage is perfect. One major bone of contention: their different professional trajectories.

Jamie is named a rising literary star when “The Atlantic” publishes the first chapter of his novel, leading to an endless and exciting (to him) round of book tours and readings.

Meanwhile, Cathy goes to one fruitless and dispiriting audition after another, finally settling for summer stock in Ohio.

LeClair’s creamy mezzo voice and excellent diction suit the moods and sounds of Brown’s pop-inflected score, as do her expressions and gestures.

Hibbs is a well trained singing actor as well, well known to this community for his compositions and teaching at San Diego State University. 

Though “The Last Five Years” is a small chamber piece, it is written as a play, calling for scenic changes and six musicians.

This production is even more stripped down than the script requires. Ion has found two singing actors who are also fine pianists, allowing them to dispense with the band.

Sets have also been nearly eliminated. This “The Last Five Years” is more of a song cycle recital than a play.

I suppose one could complain about that.

I suppose detractors might also cavil that Jamie and Cathy are types, but I would put it this way: they not only seem fully human and familiar, but I venture to say that almost every adult has known – or been – at least one of them. I found “The Last Five Years” utterly engaging.

The details

“The Last Five Years” plays though August 21, 2016 at ion theatre’s BLKBOX @ 6th & Penn, 3704 Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest.

Wednesday through Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 4 pm; Sunday at 2 pm

Tickets: (619) 600-5020 or www.iontheatre.com