Talk about burning a candle at both ends: Jason Robert Brown’s semi-autobiographical 2001 two-character musical, “The Last Five Years,” is a song cycle about a youthful love affair going down in flames — one partner's perspective told in forward chronology, the other's in reverse.
At Ventura's Rubicon Theatre under Stephanie A. Coltrin’s accomplished direction, emotionally rewarding performances showcase the compositional facility that has established Brown at the forefront of contemporary musical theater.
Understanding the forward/backward narrative structure going in helps keep track of the way points along the respective arcs of New York City twentysomethings Jamie (Louis Pardo), an up-and-coming novelist, and Cathy (Ashley Fox Linton), an aspiring actress whose career is going nowhere.
Their songs alternate in isolation—his infatuation curdling into disillusionment while she retraces failure back to earlier idealism—with a midway intersection in their single duet during a hauntingly beautiful boat ride through moonlit Central Park.
Linton, whose uncanny soprano can evoke goose bumps, also uncorks a Broadway-caliber belt when needed, while Pardo sustains a delicate pop tenor throughout.
While the show’s two-actor format has lent itself to many a budget-friendly staging, high-quality production values distinguish this revival. Video backdrops of New York City and New England countryside shot for this production by Mike and Jeff Billings help differentiate the song shifts in location and time.
A five-piece ensemble faithfully retains the string-focused tonal character of Brown’s original orchestrations for guitar, piano, violin, fretless bass and cello, unifying the various musical styles the composer handles so skillfully — pop, jazz and even a dash of klezmer to invest a folk tale interlude with old country charm.
Lyrically, the piece is more prosaic — the ingenuity is in its overlapping timelines rather than plot and character specifics. Nevertheless, the emotions ring true, and the characters’ generic quality suits their stage of life as they shed their naive asumptions.
In that respect the title is something of a misnomer — these are really the first five years in the shaping of authentic grown-up identities, with all their associated complexities, dilemmas and disappointments.
“The Last Five Years,” Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Feb. 15. $34-$64. (805) 667-2900 or www.rubicontheatre.org. Running time: 85 minutes