‘The Last Five Years’ is a heartbreaking, delicate piece of musical gorgeousness

In recent years, Jason Robert Brown’s “The Last Five Years” has been getting a lot of attention, culminating in a major motion pictures starring Anna Kendrick, but before all that, some five years ago, Penfold Theatre brought forth their own production of the play, which garnered the fledgling company heavy praise, and as well as numerous awards, including the Austin Critics Table Award for Best Musical. Now, the company, led by the immense talent that is Michael McKelvey, is re-staging the hit, bringing back most of the original cast and crew, and in the process creating magic once again, providing the kind of theatrical lightning that, luckily, actually can strike the same place twice

The story at the heart of “The Last Five Years”, the tale of two young lovers in New York, is nothing new, but it’s the way that it’s told that makes it fascinating. We start the play with Cathy, our young heroine, a struggling actress, as she discovers her husband has left her. In the next song, we meet said husband, Jamie, an up-and-coming writer, right at the beginning of the relationship. We continue this back-and-forth throughout, with the actors never sharing scenes, until right before the intermission, where we see the proposal and marriage. From there, we see the rest of the story, with Cathy springing towards the starry-eyed beginning of the love affair, and Jamie making his way to its tragic end.

The role of Cathy is a bit of an acting test for a young musical actress, as it takes a very versatile performer to take on the role. Sarcastic, sensitive, and vulnerable, Cathy can be a complex animal, and the journey that she goes on throughout the play is a roller coaster, so it’s to Sara Burke’s credit that her performance feels so authentic. When I first saw her on stage at an early age as the title character in “Sweet Charity”, it was immediately evident that there something special about her, but here she reaches heights I never would have imagined, reaching down and finding a real vulnerability to her person, and a kind of a cabaret bravado and courage that leaves audiences in awe. Indeed, her plucky rendition of “A Summer in Ohio” was one of the most delightful moments this critic has had the honor of seeing in quite some time.

David Gallagher, Burke’s partner in the play, may not meet her belt for belt, but what he brings to the table is an emotional earnestness that’s hard not to admire. He never seems to be just acting out the part, but living it, wearing it like his favorite coat. This isn’t to say he doesn’t have the pipes to get the job done, as the constant syncopation and key changes that lurk within Jamie’s songs are a trick in and of themselves, and Gallagher plays these off with aplomb. He also helps us to empathize with his character, which can be a difficult task considering his actions can be morally suspect throughout the play.

Penfold Theatre’s “The Last Five Years” is an emotional gut punch, featuring a pair brilliantly entertaining and blistering soul-wrenching performances from its two leads, who give what could possibly be the performances of their careers. Penfold continues on their roll of charming, sensitive plays, expertly creating such emotionally relevant experiences that you’ll wonder why they don’t provide Kleenex when you purchase your tickets, because believe me, after this one, you’ll need them.

“The Last Five Years” is playing at Trinity Street theatre through April 12, and runs an hour and forty minutes. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit penfoldtheatre.org.

Photo Courtesy of Kimberley Mead

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