Even though “The Last Five Years” looks like a polished workshop — minimal scenery and lighting plus economical costumes — the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s production of Jason Robert Brown’s clever musical is worth a trip. The main reason is to see singing actor Matt Rein, who plays aspiring writer Jamie opposite Sarah Shervey’s aspiring actor Catherine. At Saturday’s opening night performance, he sang his heart out in the role.
Rein pours his hopes, hurts and longings into all his numbers. He sells his songs not simply with his rich vocals, but with his whole being — from animated hands and fleet feet to rubbery expressions and sensitive eyes. The musical has elements of classic Broadway and contemporary arrangements, including songs with a prominent bass line. Rein takes us on the journey soulfully, singing a Michael Bolton-style rocker on “Moving Too Fast,” a song that chronicles Jamie’s success, even as Catherine is meeting dead ends in her own pursuits.
“The Last Five Years,” which has low-key staging by musical director Kevin Dutcher, reportedly is inspired by a failed relationship that Brown had. The 90-minute show premiered in Chicago in 2001 before moving off-Broadway. It has become a cult favorite in part because it is fresh, with ingenious lyrics and composition. With just two cast members, it also is very affordable.
The show uses an inventive narrative structure to relate the story of a relationship. Writer Jamie’s story is told from beginning to end. Catherine tells her part of the story backwards, starting at the end. Like ships passing in the night, the show’s two perspectives meet in the middle on the marriage duet, “The Next Ten Minutes.” Again, Rein was stellar, while Shervey, who reportedly had a cold, struggled. She could not muster much on the high or low end of the register. And her energy was low.
Lots of theaters offer Cupid-themed programming in February to capitalize on the season of roses and chocolates. “Last Five Years” is a bit of counter-programming — a charming valentine on the precarious nature of love.