Like nearly everyone of a certain age, Tony Award-winning composer Jason Robert Brown knows what it means to have loved and lost.
He evoked that experience artfully in his 2001 musical The Last Five Years, giving the two-character show about the birth and death of a five-year relationship an original twist: The guy’s songs chart the courtship and marriage from start to finish, while the woman’s begin at the breakup and work backwards to the first blush of love.
Brown’s song cycle is playing out once more, this time in an Actors’ Playhouse production at the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables. Its stars are Janet Dacal, whose recent Broadway credits include Wonderland (she played a grown-up Alice) and In the Heights (she originated the role of beautician Carla, then played the lead Nina); and Christopher A. Kent, who has a long list of Actors’ Playhouse credits in addition to his work at other regional theaters.
The actor-singers have worked together before, playing several different couples in the 2006 Actors’ production of Five Course Love. The Last Five Years is a more challenging show, and not just because of its structure. Brown, who won the 1999 best score Tony for Parade, is a chameleonic composer who draws on pop, jazz, rock, klezmer music and other styles for various songs. Impressive musical versatility from the performers is key to The Last Five Years.
Director David Arisco and musical director Manny Schvartzman have that versatile cast, and they’re especially fortunate that Dacal, a Florida International University grad, decided to come home to work for the holidays.
She plays Cathy Hiatt, an aspiring actress who does round after round of auditions in New York but doesn’t book much more than a summer stock gig in Ohio. Kent is Jamie Wellerstein, a novelist whose career trajectory is ascendant. In 85 minutes of beginning-to-end, end-to-beginning musical storytelling, we learn that Cathy and Jamie fell hard and committed fast, that the idealism and encouragement of their just-married state gave way to career jealousy from her, slippery lies from him.
The radiant Dacal has a glorious voice and the acting chops to make each of Cathy’s songs her own, from the quietly raw Still Hurting to the humor of Summer in Ohio and I Can Do Better Than That to the hope-filled Goodbye Until Tomorrow. Kent brings a slightly rough edge and some world-weariness to Jamie, blending well with Dacal on the couple’s let’s-get-married song The Next Ten Minutes and Jamie’s end-of-show farewell, I Could Never Rescue You. Kent is a likeable guy, Jamie not so much as he sings Nobody Needs to Know to a colleague-turned-lover.
Arisco, Schvartzman and a small behind-the-set orchestra, costume designer Ellis Tillman, lighting designer Patrick Tennent and sound designer Alexander Herrin deliver combine to deliver the show’s many emotional shifts.
Cathy and Jamie’s story is played out on designer Sean McClelland’s abstract set, a multi-level affair with small turntables. Painted with watery blue waves evoking a lake in Central Park, topped by a clear canopy with running water that stands in for a wedding chuppah, it is undeniably striking. Notice, though, a shelf circling the back, a shelf topped with vases holding flowers in various stages of decomposition. Given the subject of The Last Five Years, perhaps the set is really meant to be a mausoleum for a marriage.