The minimalist musical The Last Five Years is a dead relationship's post-mortem. Using his own failed nuptials as inspiration, composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown channeled his universal frustration into this ingenious, 15-part, one-act song cycle charting both the ascent and descent of his relationship with his wife -- at the same time.
Cathy's story begins at the mournful collapse of their marriage and turns back time with each song; Jamie's starts at the exuberant throes of first love and moves chronologically. They rotate tunes, never interacting directly until they duet at their wedding, when both Cathy's backward motion and Jamie's forward movement coalesce. Then the roles switch, and we see how the relationship turned sour from Jamie's point of view, while understanding the pangs of first love that led Cathy to fall for Jamie.
Actors Playhouse, which opened its production of The Last Five Years this past weekend (it runs through Dec. 30) delivers this high concept with grace, fluidity and nuance, starting with Sean McLelland's ravishing set design, a tranquil space evoking the earthen tones of a spa. Other productions of The Last Five Years have favored a giant clock towering over the characters' actions, but McLelland's take is more artistic than literal, bisecting the stage's symmetrical halves with a concave hourglass of flowing water. Patrick Tennent's lighting design gives the entire space an ethereal blue glow.
On either side of the hourglass are rotating spheres that hold simple props and that move with the cycles of life. In stage right, everything is wonderful and new, and on stage left, everything is joyless and moribund. As Jamie, Christopher A. Kent opens on the plus side, as a bookish, Jewish twentysomething who has met a "Shiksa Goddess" (his opening song) in Cathy. It's a funny enough song, and Kent performs it well, but for some reason, it went over like a wet balloon at Actors Playhouse last night. Jamie's songs, early on, have a tinge of abrasiveness that Cathy's don't, and if anything wins the audience over, it's Janet Dacal's performance.
Plucked from Broadway, Dacal is a consummate performer; her heavenly voice reaches glorious highs, and she acts with every part of her body. Her Cathy is an aspiring actress languishing in sweltering summer stock productions while Jamie rises to eminence in the literary world, and the artistic imbalance of their careers is a major cause of their disintegration. The role provides Dacal the opportunity for melancholy, rage and especially humor - during an unforgettably manic audition sequence as well as on "A Summer in Ohio," a song with wordplay witty enough for the Cole Porter canon - and she sells it all with passion and pathos.
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The final bravo is reserved for director David Arisco for pulling off the complex, time-jumping narrative with ease. There is a sensitivity in his handling of the material, in which the brooding contempt of the breakup scenes still suggest the love that once bloomed, and even the whirlwind infatuation of the first-love songs reveal early warning signs of collapse. Arisco, Dacal and Kent see the gray in a musical divided into black and white.
The Last Five Years is at Actors Playhouse, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables, through December 30. Tickets cost $40 to $48. Call 305-444-9293 or visit actorsplayhouse.org.