Johnny Shea and Laura Darrell in “The Last Five Years” at Portland Stage. Photo by Aaron Flacke

Portland Stage is closing out its 45th season with “The Last Five Years.”  The off-Broadway musical captures – through song – the unraveling of a marriage with an enthralling chronological twist.  Waves of emotion wash over the audience as the star-crossed characters pass like ships in the night, leaving the wreckage of their love on the rocky shore.

When couples look back on their failed relationships, they often find that they were rarely, if ever, on the same page.  After the dissolution of his own marriage, playwright Jason Robert Brown decided to write a musical that highlights both the different perspectives and the importance of seeing both sides of the story.  The resulting time warp in “The Last Five Years” is both mind-bending and highly effective.

It is love at first sight when Cathy, played by Laura Darrell, and Jamie, played by Johnny Shea, first meet.  She’s an aspiring actor and he’s a would-be writer.  Five years down the road, their marriage is in shambles and Jamie leaves to start a new life.  Although that’s the tragic end for their marriage, it’s only the beginning for this moving musical that’s told completely through song.

“The Last Five Years” opens with Darrell delivering a powerful rendition of “Still Hurting” that is the heart-wrenching end of Cathy and Jamie’s marriage.  From there she rewinds, song-by-song, until she returns to the day Cathy and Jamie first met.  Meanwhile, Shea delivers his character’s side of the story in chronological order, starting out giddy in love on “Shiksa Goddess” and ending with the couple’s final goodbye.

The solo songs alternate back and forth between the characters, one back in time, one forward.  Even when the characters appear together in a song on the revolving circular set, they are physically at different times in their life story.  The one exception is the couple’s marriage, delivered in the beautiful duets “The Next Ten Minutes” and “A Miracle Would Happen.”

The characters moving in different directions in time may take a few songs for some viewers to fully wrap their heads around, but it’s a spectacular emotional rollercoaster.  The clever construct gives a Yin Yang emotional balance to the story while making it crystal clear that the characters just weren’t on the same page.  Also, by separating two halves of a conversation by time, the musical drives home the point that a story isn’t whole without both points of view.

When Cathy is at her lowest, Jamie is at his most jubilant and vice versa, making these roles challenging for the actors.  They are unable to feed off each other emotionally, not to mention the sheer effort it takes to sing all the dialogue.

Darrell and Shea deliver exceptional performances that truly capture their characters’ journey through time, emotionally and physically.  Her lilting soprano rips your heart out with its rawness and beauty, and his effervescent tenor nicely ages and mellows with the passage of time.  Darrell nimbly navigates the added challenge of reverse chronology, while Shea matures before the audience’s eyes.  He’s the consummate storyteller in the engaging “The Schmuel Song,” and her rendition of “A Summer in Ohio” epitomizes the “glamorous” life of an actor.

Musical director Ed Reichert (piano), Catherine Begin (cello) and Lynnea Harding (violin) provide onstage musical accompaniment with deft piano and wistful strings that fuel the emotional highs and lows of the dramatic score.

“The Last Five Years” is a vibrant and expressive musical that colors between the lines with a gripping score and magnetic cast. It’s a refreshing look at a failed marriage, offering a unique perspective that is intriguing, compelling and poignant, all rolled up into one (time) diverting tale.

April Boyle is a freelance writer from Casco. She can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: ahboyle

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