BWW Review: The Last Five Years

 Pictured: Galen Crawley | Photo: Shane Burkeen

Pictured: Galen Crawley | Photo: Shane Burkeen

BWW Review: Nashville Rep's The Last Five Years

Jeffrey Ellis | Broadway World Nashville

Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years is one of the most popular contemporary musicals currently en vogue, particularly among newer (read: younger) generations of theater devotees and those older musical theater lovers "in the know." So it should come as no surprise that Nashville Repertory Theatre launches its 2016-17 season with a Jason Tucker-directed (and musical directed) production, now onstage at Andrew Johnson Theatre at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center.

Even after multiple local productions (including the one I directed in August 2015 at Darkhorse Theater, courtesy of VWA Theatricals - in the cause of honesty, ethics and all things honorable, I feel I must make that known) that have met with varying levels of success and critical and audience acclaim, Nashville Rep's staging gives Brown's lauded two-person musical an opportunity to win over new fans in Music City.

Starring Nashville stage newcomers Galen Crawley and Seth Lieber as the aspiring young actress Catherine Hyatt and her novelist husband Jamie Wellerstein, The Last Five Years can be polarizing: You either love it to the point of obsession or you hate it to the point that even the first few notes of "Still Hurting" can propel you into paroxysms of anti-theatrical delusion.

It's easy to see why, of course, since Cathy is sometimes over-emotional, Jamie is relentlessly egocentric and the dynamics of their relationship can lead you to feel ill-at-ease when sitting in an audience, watching their relationship deepen and grow, only to wither away. But that may be credited to the superb way that Brown has written the pair of lovers and the authenticity of the relationship playing out onstage. Because even as Cathy and Jamie may make you feel, you cannot help but be attracted to them and to care about what happens to their shared dreams and ambitions. Brown walks a fine line, as if he and his characters are skating along the sharp edge of a razor blade to demonstrate the difficulty of maneuvering the various stages of a romantic relationship in this world in which we live.

If you find yourself at first blanching at the Cathy and Jamie you meet onstage in the Johnson Theatre at the top of the show, give yourself a chance to get to know them better...both Crawley and Lieber become more confident in their performances as the story unfolds. And it unfolds in a way that newcomers to the story may find hard to interpret initially: Cathy's story is told in reverse chronological order (her story begins "today" and moves back over the five-year period of her relationship with Jamie), while his dramatic arc begins at the beginning - in the first silvery blush of romance in the aftermath of a terrific first date and follows its through-line to the decimation of their lives together.

Clearly, it's a clever dramatic device that Brown uses (he supposedly based the musical upon his own relationship with his first wife) and audiences cannot help but be drawn into the tale of emerging love and the regrets and recriminations of a relationship gone awry. Brown's score shows off his amazing talent to perfection, incorporating various genres of music to tale the story of the young couple.

Director Tucker does a fine job of helping his two leading players to find their characters in a believable, oftentimes engaging fashion and his blocking works for the most part, although both Crawley and Lieber are often facing away from the main seating bank in Johnson Theatre to deliver some particularly emotional and heartfelt moments.

Music director and conductor Tucker's ensemble of musicians perform the score with a sense of elan that ensures the music will connect with the audience - and vice-versa - and it would be hard to believe that Brown's score has ever sounded better.

Phillip Franck's exquisite lighting design proves to be one of the most important elements in the production, a beautifully choreographed twinkling and illuminating lighting plot that becomes another character in the chamber piece. Gary C. Hoff's startling scenic design provides the actors with a fanciful playing space, and allowing audience members to use their imaginations to fill in the blanks of Brown's primarily New York City setting.