Jason Robert Brown’s incredibly emotional and warmly intimate two-person, one-act musical “The Last Five Years” receives an endearingly performed, vocally splendid treatment courtesy of Dare to Defy Productions inside the Mathile Theatre of the Schuster Center.
In just 80 compelling minutes, “Last Five Years,” delicately directed with contemplative touches by Mackensie Vonderbrink, paints a fascinating portrait of twentysomething lovebirds in New York City particularly torn apart by differing career paths. Jamie Wellerstein, an emerging writer taking the publishing world by storm, and Cathy Hiatt, a struggling actress longing for her big break, happily meet and eventually marry, but simply cannot make their relationship work. In a clever use of unorthodox storytelling, Brown tells Jamie’s story in standard, chronological fashion while Cathy’s journey progresses from heartbreak to joy. This conceptual device can be confusing, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the material, but it isn’t burdensome. In fact, the opportunity to piece together the entire journey from both perspectives is a fun challenge allowing the action to unfold with attention-grabbing fluidity without fear of becoming stagnant. The dual stories, vividly detailed and remarkably engaging in terms of relatability, appropriately intersect at Jamie and Cathy’s wedding, but separately entice throughout with terrific, character-driven panache by Wright State University acting/musical theater students Ian Benjamin and Kelsey Pohl.
Benjamin, very memorable last season as Thenardier in WSU’s “Les Misérables,” is a strikingly sharp, mature Jamie, impressively navigating the difficulty of appearing adorably lovestruck, energetic and humorous, lovingly supportive, tearfully ashamed, and boldly committed to moving on without seeming arrogant, misunderstood or ambiguous. Musically, Benjamin specifically brings lighthearted spunk to the jaunty “Moving Too Fast” (featuring tremendous piano accompaniment by musical director Dean Brown) and fills the melancholy “Nobody Needs to Know” with ample heartache. Pohl, an awesome Kate last season in WSU’s “The Wild Party,” brilliantly conveys Cathy’s agitation, disgust, hurt, and hopefulness. In particular, her marvelously refreshing rendition of “I’m a Part of That” clearly finds Cathy questioning her place in Jamie’s life. Pohl’s lyric-driven finesse continues with exceptionally honest, wonderfully conversational, encore-worthy versions of “A Summer in Ohio,” “Audition Sequence” and “I Can Do Better Than That.” Due to the considerable technical complexities of Brown’s enthralling, melodic score, a mild hybrid of Stephen Sondheim and Billy Joel sensibilities, it’s great to see Benjamin, Pohl and pianist Brown skillfully rise to the occasion.
In addition to scenic designer Chris Harmon’s efficient platforms and large clock reiterating the material’s passage of time, the beautiful contributions of violinist Josh Van Tilburgh, bassist Parisa Samavati and cellist Rebekah Thompson greatly accent the proceedings. However, unfortunate sightlines occur for patrons seated toward the rear of the Mathile due to some numbers performed at the front lower level of the stage.
Even so, Dare to Defy, quickly becoming a musical theater force in the Gem City, delivers another hit.
“The Last Five Years” continues tonight at 8 p.m. in the Mathile Theatre of the Schuster Center, Second and Main Streets, Dayton, and Tues. Jan. 6 at 7:15 p.m. at Mimi’s Cafe, 4402 Walnut St., Beavercreek. Tickets to tonight’s performance are $20, and can be purchased by calling Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visiting www.ticketcenterstage.com. For more information about the Mimi’s Cafe presentation, visit www.d2defy.com.
In related news, Dare to Defy’s 2015 season includes “The Songs of Hair in Concert” (March 13 and 14), “Assassins” (July 17-25), “Into the Woods” (Sept. 5 and 6), and “Godspell” (Oct. 9-17).