Einstein alluded to it, and the quantum physicist and 1-800 medium alike declare it openly: linear time is way less real than we think it is. In Tony Award-winning composer Jason Robert Brown’s song-cycle musical, The Last Five Years, chronological time goes by the board as, in a clever device that turns the love story on its head, time moves forward from the man’s perspective, backwards from the woman’s.
Cathy (Erika Strasburg) kicks the story off in the slough of despond and Ms. Strasburg’s acting is so refined, we suffer for her as she warbles the song’s refrain, “And I’m still hurting.”
How jarring is it then, to have Jamie (Peter Moses) appear in a key-light grinning like a lovesick puppy, which is in fact, exactly what he is, for this marks his first revelatory sight of Cathy, after whom he croons, “Hey, hey, shiksa goddess, I’ve been waiting for someone like you my entire life.”
Note to audience: It is essential that you take those few minutes after plumping down in your seat to read the program notes where the time-addled plot lines are revealed. Without this, you’ll think you’re watching experimental theatre where the characters have no idea if they’re coming or going, nor will you.
At the nub of this love story is the pitfall presenting itself to two talented people whose careers are rattling along different tracks — again the mismatching of time-frames. For Jamie a meteoric rise occurs when, at the age of 23, the arrival of an adulating agent precedes a bidding war for his novel and look out F. Scott Fitzgerald! Cathy, an aspiring actress, remains in the middle range; lots of cattle call auditions, rejections from the director’s table, and out-of-town tours with summer stock companies.
Conceivably no artistic couple alive can handle this conflict and remain copacetic. Jamie tries to stay supportive, but is devastated to have Cathy opt out of his author’s events. Cathy for her part is loath to subsume all her desires for his yet is desperate to forgive him when “he gets on the train for Jamieland.”
The music, flowing from waltzes to rhythm and blues to flat out Sondheim speak-a-sing, takes us through the highs and lows of romantic love wherein the players and we are united in a simple wish: Why can’t we all just get along?, lovers first and foremost.
With the cunning format of time, Cathy and Jamie continue to engage in separate spheres on the stage, wrapped up in continuing cross purposes, all except for a breathless vignette in the middle. There, on their opposing trajectories, they meet in an apex of happiness: They row a boat in Central Park, Jamie proposes, they sing together (The Next Ten Minutes), marry, dance, sing some more, and vow to stay together “for the next 10 lifetimes.”
Director Kaf Warman, whose productions with ITW would fill a Wikipedia page, brought this production to life with perfect nuance, allowing each moment of pathos, humor, yearning and cloud-gathering to have its full expression. Ms. Warman, who lives in Oak Bluffs, also teaches at Carnegie Mellon University where she’s a professor in the school of drama. It was there that the two gifted young actors were discovered and co-opted to perform The Last Five Years on Martha’s Vineyard.
Ms. Strasburg, whose vocal range goes from the sweetest, most piercing soprano to Mama Cass knock-down-drag-out, in the fall will be entering her junior year as an acting major at Carnegie Mellon. This is her second production, after playing Hope in Urinetown in Philadelphia last summer. While she’s here, the company is putting her to further use — she’ll be teaching at ITW’s Children’s Theatre this summer.
Mr. Moses, with a fine voice and a grinning, movie star charisma, is from Shaker Heights, Ohio, and also will be entering his junior year in the school of drama at Carnegie Mellon. His recent roles include Tock in A Phantom Tollbooth at CMU and Tony in West Side Story in Cleveland, Ohio. He too will be teaching the tots at ITW’s Children’s Theatre in the coming months.
Musical director Peter Hutchings performs a yeoman’s job carrying the barrage of songs on the piano — a job of particular muscularity when we consider that the first two runs of the play — in Chicago in 2001 and off Broadway in New York in 2002 — embedded a six-player orchestra. Mr. Hutchings has composed more than a dozen musicals for Children’s Theatre, the Vineyard Playhouse and ITW. He’s been the accompanist for the Island Community Chorus and has worked for Brandeis University as accompanist and vocal coach. He has performed in concerts as far away as China and Russia, and for the past seven years has plied the musical arts in Los Angeles.
Sara Crafts, who has been stage and/or production manager for ITW for over 35 years, once again lent her talents to the current show. Lighting design and board operation was ably mounted by Matthew Fisher, Island native and a sophomore at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. Prior to this stint, he did design work for Between The Lines, which debuted at the 2008 Massachusetts High School Drama Guild festival. Matthew hopes to attend college in theatre production.
The Last Five Years will continue on the boards through July 6, Thursdays through Sundays at 8:30 p.m. at the Katharine Cornell Theatre on Spring street in Vineyard Haven. Tickets are $20 at the door.