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Regional Reviews by Nancy Grossman

The Last Five Years
New Repertory Theatre

The Last Five Years
Aimee Doherty and Mark Linehan
When New Repertory Theatre announced the line-up of shows for its 2010-2011 season with the theme of "Transformation," the one I most looked forward to was Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years. I was introduced to Brown's work and fell in love with his music and realism in 2003 when I saw another local production of this sung-through two-hander and have since given the CD of the original Off-Broadway cast (Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie René Scott) lots of play. Having that much familiarity sometimes results in disappointment when revisiting a show because I am used to the way the songs sound, or how a character comes across. In this instance, I was pleasantly surprised at how different the show feels, primarily because of the choices made by Director Jim Petosa and the cast of Aimee Doherty (Cathy) and Mark Linehan (Jamie).

The Last Five Years is about the romance, marriage, and break-up of two artists, but its structure is unusual in that Cathy tells her story looking back from its ending, while Jamie shares his experiences from beginning to end. These parallel views intersect only in the middle of the five years when the characters pledge their love during a boat ride in Central Park ("The Next Ten Minutes"). Otherwise, the actors play off an unseen partner, often communicating via cell phone, even when both happen to be simultaneously on the stage. The format serves to give a strong impression of the separate lives that the couple leads.

One message that Brown hammers home is that marriage and relationships are hard, but he goes to great lengths to show that it is harder for artists because of the time and devotion they must give to their craft. Jamie is a young (mid-20s) rising star when his novel gets published, while Cathy struggles through a season of unfulfilling summer stock in Ohio and fruitless cattle call auditions. Their lives diverge further as their careers head in opposite directions, something they never saw coming and are hard-pressed to reverse. Jamie faces adulation and temptation, resenting that he needs to resist for the sake of the marriage, and Cathy has to deal with professional rejection, as well as what she perceives as a lack of sufficient emotional support from her spouse.

It is an oversimplification to say that the characters are defined by the previous statement, but, in large part, it describes their individual story arcs. And this is where the New Rep production veers in a slightly different direction. Cathy is written as extremely neurotic and insecure, seeking to be completed by a man and willing to give herself over to him in return. Doherty's Cathy is more grounded and self-deprecating, albeit very much in love with love. Jamie is more self-contained and self-absorbed, to the point that he believes that he is entitled to act upon any opportunity (read: female companionship) that comes his way. However, Linehan projects an internal struggle and feelings of disappointment and shame, making Jamie appear more vulnerable than expected and, therefore, less of a cad. As a result, it feels like neither has a good outcome, making the conclusion even more poignant.

Brown's superb score is laid down by Music Director/pianist Todd C. Gordon and a four-member orchestra consisting of guitar, violin, and two cellos. The lush resonance of the stringed instruments underlies the emotion-laden nature of many of the songs. But any production of The Last Five Years truly rises or falls on the voices of the cast, and Doherty and Linehan do not disappoint. Opening with "Still Hurting," Doherty's hurt is palpable as she sings ruefully to the wedding ring she has removed from her finger. Moving back in time, she captures that walking-on-eggshells feeling in "See I'm Smiling," when Cathy is unsure of Jamie's attention, and the relief of belonging with someone in "I'm a Part of That."

Most of Cathy's singing is directed at Jamie, sometimes pleading, sometimes just trying to please, whereas his songs in the early going are aimed at the audience with a "look at me" attitude. Linehan has an endearing smile and infectious charm that make us want to look at—and listen to—him. He gives new life to the one song that has often bored me, "The Schmuel Song," because he turns it into the gift for Cathy that it is meant to be. As his character moves forward in time, he seems to physically deflate as his frustration grows, until he appears to be totally spent at the end when he duets with the hopeful and energized Cathy on "Goodbye Until Tomorrow/I Could Never Rescue You."

The Last Five Years is a small but precisely crafted musical that burrows into some of the most intimate spaces of a couple's relationship. New Rep has wisely chosen to stage it in the Black Box Theatre where the audience has ringside seats for this love match. The two contenders are both deserving of affection and support, although the odds are poor for them to go the distance together. Still, Doherty and Linehan will keep you entertained until the final bell.

The Last Five Years Performances through April 17 at New Repertory Theatre in the Black Box Theater; Box Office 617-923-8487 or www.newrep.org.

Written and composed by Jason Robert Brown, Directed by Jim Petosa, Music Direction by Todd C. Gordon; Cristina Todesco, Scenic Design; Nancy Leary, Costume Design; Scott Pinkney, Lighting Design; David Reiffel, Sound Design; Julien Winter Tremblay, Stage Manager. Featuring Aimee Doherty as Cathy and Mark Linehan as Jamie


Photo: Christopher McKenzie



- Nancy Grossman



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