The Last Five Years

Penfold Theatre's remount of the chamber musical tracks a failed romance with intimacy and polish

Sara Burke
Sara Burke (Photo courtesy of Kimberley Mead)

The Last Five Years

Trinity Street Theatre, 901 Trinity
Through April 12
Running time: 1 hr., 40 min.

The contemporary love story is less fraught with much of the fairy-tale fanfare of its predecessors. Today, the tragedy of a failed relationship often lies in the timing. Such is the case for Cathy and Jamie in Jason Robert Brown's chamber musical, The Last Five Years, which plays with our sense of time to tell simply yet innovatively the story of one couple's relationship. Confusing though the notion may seem, the tale unfolds rather plainly, with the small caveat that Cathy's version begins at their breakup, playing in reverse until their very first date, while Jamie's rendition is laid out chronologically, from pre-date jitters to lamenting a relationship lost. There is no mystery as to whether this pair will have a happy ending. Knowing from the opening song that their underlying issues – jealousy, selfishness, wandering eyes – will eventually take their toll on the two is perhaps what makes the musical so heartrending and engaging from beginning to end – and from end to beginning.

Penfold Theatre Company has done its own part to take Austinites back in time by bringing back the acclaimed musical, which it first produced in 2009. The director and musical director of that production, Michael McKelvey, stages this remount at the Trinity Street Theatre, an intimate space befitting the tone of the play. There are no microphones or other frills, adding to what feels like an authentic glimpse into the aspirations, shortcomings, and frustrations of the two twentysomethings, the only characters in the play.

New to this iteration of the production, Sara Burke plays Cathy, an aspiring actress who may not be thick-skinned enough to make it in New York. Burke's Cathy is believable, pitiable, and, most of all, relatable. Whereas in other productions Cathy has come across as a bit of a nag, insecure and jealous of Jamie's success as a blossoming writer, Burke's nuanced performance fully fleshes out the character. With her hilarious takes on songs such as "Climbing Uphill" and "A Summer in Ohio," Burke has the audience in stitches; with her beautifully sung renditions of "Still Hurting" and "I'm a Part of That," she moves them to tears.

As the cocky young novelist unsure of how to process his newfound fame, Jamie has his own set of problems that chip away at the relationship. David Gallagher's portrayal certainly nails the hammier side of Jamie, primarily in the first act, but he could benefit from some of Burke's vulnerability in the play's latter half. Still, Gallagher keeps his energy high and uses comic timing to lighten the mood as Jamie attempts to balance creative success with his love life.

Though only two actors create this show's magic onstage, a powerful creative team help to realize this production. Both Glenda Barnes' costuming and David Utley's scenic design help to believably place the pair in modern-day New York. Rob Greenfield on piano and Leigh Mahoney on violin expertly filled the space with Brown's challenging and impressive score.

Penfold once more offers up a polished work to Austin audiences, one that distorts time, pushes love to its breaking point, and simultaneously fills our hearts with melancholy and hope.

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Penfold Theatre Company, Jason Robert Brown, Michael McKelvey, Sara Burke, David Gallagher, Glenda Barnes, David Utley, Rob Greenfield, Leigh Mahoney

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