THEATRE REVIEW: The Last Five Years 

Equally at Odds: PURE Theatre's Last Five Years is a lovely bittersweet memento

The Last Five Years
Produced by PURE Theatre
Jan. 29-31, Feb. 5-7, 12-14, 7:30 p.m.
Feb. 1, 3 p.m.
$10-$30
Circular Congregational Church
Lance Hall
150 Meeting St.
(800) 838-3006
www.puretheatre.org

A woman I once knew thought of her past relationships as a bunch of old outfits she kept in a sort of spare closet in her mind. Although she regularly pared the collection to a few representative items, over the years there survived one or two significant keepsakes she was certain she'd never part with.

Jason Robert Brown's musical The Last Five Years is about that sort of relationship, one that — even when the next big move comes along — still manages to stowaway among the boxes.

Jamie Wellerstein (David Mandel) is a young novelist who suddenly finds his personal brass ring in his grasp. Cathy Hiatt (Emily Wilhoit), an actress struggling toward her own career goals, is about to cross his path. But in The Last Five Years they won't share the stage until mid-way through the musical and then, only briefly.

With that one exception, Brown's characters remain out of sync. Jamie's story progresses sequentially, from meeting to divorce; Cathy's story unfolds in reverse.

Jamie, when we meet him, is giddy with his sudden success: "I just expected it 10 years later/ I've got a singular impression things are moving too fast," he sings.

For her part, Cathy is one last step away from admitting relationship defeat: "I think we both can see what could be better — I'll own when I was wrong/ With all we've had to go through/ We'll end up twice as strong."

The ongoing distance between them — highlighted here as opposing time sequences — seems to define their relationship as much as the giddy, fragile impulses that drew them together.

As they trade stage time back and forth, one retreating to a neutral corner while the other sings solo, the contradictory tempo and feel of their songs isolate Cathy and Jamie even further.

Brown's music covers a wide range. Keyboardist Eric Johnson has his work cut out for him: rolling out 90 minutes of everything from boogie-woogie to waltzes to plaintive odes that might have been plucked from a Sondheim show.

Brown's lyrics reveal characters equally at odds with their own ambitions and with one another. Jamie's career outpaces Cathy's and we get a glimpse of both the resentment and the misgivings this creates. While Jamie seizes his opportunities with little thought for Cathy, she tries to console herself with being supportive ("I'm a Part of That.")

Both Wilhoit and Mandel give strong performances here.

Mandel manages to tone down his character's inherent egomania and give us a likeable, if misguided, guy. Mandel is touching and funny in "The Schmuel Song," which relates the story Jamie has written for Cathy as a Christmas gift. He's persuasive and compelling in the tragic "Nobody Needs to Know."

Wilhoit takes full advantage of Cathy's theatrical bent to cover a lot of emotional territory. From her wonderfully sad opening song, "Still Hurting," to the antic audition sequence, "Climbing Uphill," Wilhoit is a commanding presence.

For all its clever temporal distortions, The Last Five Years is a simple, bittersweet memento, like the ones that find their way into the moving van when no one else is looking.


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