While ion Theatre has a big-cast show playing off-site at the 10th Avenue Theatre, a two-character song cycle is in residence at its home space.
The Last Five Years is the small gem at ion’s BLKBOX, at 6th and Pennsylvania in Hillcrest. Written by Broadway composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown (Parade, 13, The Bridges of Madison County, Honeymoon in Vegas, two Tony Awards for Best Original Score), the show is like quite a bit of this composer’s work. It’s intimate, complex, and best appreciated by people who like their entertainment to make them think.
The story is simple but there’s a gimmick to it: in 75 intermission-less minutes, it traces the relationship between Cathy (Sarah Alida LeClair) and Jamie (Cory Hibbs) from start to finish – and from finish to start. The song cycle begins with Cathy’s lament at the end of the relationship and then moves to Jamie’s sung monologue about how he’d like to meet a woman who wasn’t Jewish. Cathy, as it turns out, fits the bill.
Jamie is a writer on the brink of success. Cathy is an actress who is following a traditional path to making it – summer theatre followed by lots of auditions in New York. They seem well-matched, except… Jamie has trouble keeping his eye off other women… and Cathy’s career doesn’t go as planned while Jamie enjoys great success.
It’s a recipe for relationship failure, but the two get married anyway (in the middle of the show, where the stories meet in a duet).
The audience knows what’s coming, but getting there via song is not just half the fun but all of it. Mr. Brown’s score sparkles and the lyrics dazzle. They go by quickly, and multiple hearings help (besides this production there’s a film version, if you need those multiple hearings).
Ion has remounted this production, which ran at the PowPAC Theatre earlier this year. Mr. Hibbs directed; Ms. LeClair Music-directed. Both of them play the piano, which means there is live music most of the time (in a few places, it doesn’t work to have either of the two playing live, so there is recorded accompaniment at those times). They are accomplished pianists, and serve well in the role of accompanist.
Both also serve well in their solo turns. Nicely paired, they are engaging singers, though each seems to have an affinity for the sad songs over the happy or funny ones.
The set is plain and simple: a few risers and a couple of set pieces that double as furniture. As director, Mr. Hibbs has used the space to present the audience in ion’s L-shaped space with different perspectives on each character.
In the end, the couple has split, the audience realizes that Cathy probably had a more accurate perspective on Jamie than he had of her. Even so, Cathy’s optimistic song, “Goodbye Until Tomorrow,” is probably optimistic for the wrong reasons. The Last Five Years is bittersweet, probably contains more truth than fantasy, and wholly satisfying. It’s a short run and may not return soon, so see if while you have the chance.