A Bittersweet Pas de Deux

By Geary Danihy

When you’re in love, time seems out of joint, as it does when you’re also falling out of love. In either case, you seem to be in a world without clocks, a world where a moment seems to last a lifetime and five years, well five years seems to be but a moment. Such is the case with Cathy and Jamie, whose story is unfolding currently at MTC Mainstage in Norwalk. Their wooing, marriage and break-up is captured in The Last Five Years, a lovely production directed by Kevin Connors that can’t help but tug at the heartstrings.

Written and composed by Jason Robert Brown (based on his own marital experience), this dance of two fragile, solipsistic hearts offers an interesting take on the deconstruction of a relationship, for Jamie’s story is told in sequence, while Cathy’s story is told in reverse, so the musical opens with Cathy (Jennifer Malenke) finding a note from Jamie (Nicolas Dromard) telling her that their marriage is over, which leads to the first song, “Still Hurting.” This is immediately followed by the exuberant “Shiksa Goddess,” sung by Jamie as he proclaims that he doesn’t give a damn about his Jewish heritage; his people have suffered enough and now he should be allowed just a little happiness to be found in Cathy’s arms. In a way, the evening is a study in the Buddhist concept of tanha, an attempt to hold on to an ungraspable experience.

MTC’s intimate thrust stage layout allows the audience to capture nuances that might be lost, or at least muted, on a larger stage, thus Dromard and Malenke don’t have to worry about playing to the balcony. As befits his character, a 23-year-old author who has made it big with his first novel, Dromard gives us a somewhat larger-then-life Jamie, with broad gestures and aggressive body language. Malenke, as the insecure, struggling actress, offers the audience a study of open-hearted delight mixed with self-doubt, and it is she who makes the most of the fact that the audience is mere feet away from her. Subtle hand gestures and eyes that at one moment glow with delight and then reflect her character’s insecurity all go towards a complete performance: engaging, beguiling and heartfelt.

Given the dual time-line of the musical, the two actors sing but one number together, when their characters’ stories intersect (“The Next Ten Minutes). Other than that, the numbers are set-pieces that allow the audience to experience the relationship from two different angles, and many of these set-pieces are little gems. There is Cathy’s attempt to tell herself that she is still a part of her husband’s life (“I’m Part of That”) and Jamie’s tale of Schmuel the tailor (“The Schmuel Song”) that he tells to her at Christmas, an interdenominational present.

Perhaps the strongest moments in the show are when Cathy is unsuccessfully auditioning (“Climbing Uphill/Audition Sequence”) and, immediately following that number, “If I Didn’t Believe in You,” during which the frustrated Jamie tries to get his wife to accompany him to a publisher’s party held in his honor. Then there is Jamie and Cathy driving to meet her parents, during which Cathy explains her attempts to escape her small-town upbringing and, finally, the delightful “A Summer in Ohio,” in which Cathy describes the horrors of acting in summer stock in rural America.

The musical’s final number is an exercise in poignancy, for we have Cathy, ecstatic after the couple’s first date, singing “Goodbye Until Tomorrow,” while Jamie laments that “I Could Never Rescue You.” As Cathy waves to him, a first-time goodbye, Jamie turns and, with his back, says goodbye for the last time.

If there is one problem in the production, it is the dominance of the four-piece orchestra consisting of a piano (Nolan Bonvouloir), Violin (Rebekah Butler), Cello (Charlie Rasmussen) and Guitar (Mike Godette). Wonderful musicians all, they create a sound that, given the confines of the theater, often all but overwhelms the lyrics, even though the two actors are miked.

That quibble aside, The Last Five Years is an intriguing, engaging evening of musical theater powered by two Broadway veterans who both know how to sell a song. For anyone who has felt the thrill of “true love” followed by the despair of lost love, the evening will resonate, and for those (poor souls) who have never had either experience, consider it a primer.

The Last Five Years runs through April 24. For further information or ticket reservations call the box office at 203.454.3883 or visit: www.musictheatreofct.com.

MTC has announced its upcoming season, an eclectic mix of musicals and plays that will begin with a production of Gypsy. How will Connors et al pull this off in a theater more suited for a drawing room drama? Well, Connors scored big with his production of Cabaret in an even smaller venue, and last year staged an admirable Evita. One can only await with anticipation the boarding of Gypsy writ small.

 

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