Jason Robert Brown's off-Broadway hit The Last Five Years is both an ecstatic celebration of love and a bone-scraping anatomy of a divorce. It all happens in about 90 minutes, ingeniously structured as a showcase for two actors and conveyed through expository songs with a minimum of dialogue.
Running at Boca's Evening Star Productions, this song cycle follows, in chronological order, rising novelist Jamie (Ben Sandomir) as he sings his way through the initial pangs of love, growing literary success, and finally a crumbling marriage. He rotates songs with Cathy (Sara Grant), a struggling actress whose tunes move backward in time, starting with the heartbreaking "I'm Still Hurting," moving through an artistically infertile period as Jamie's second fiddle, and ending on the rapture of their first meeting.
The Last Five Years gathers its painful strength through its jarring emotional transitions; the show is like Lombard Street in San Francisco, Ping-Ponging between bliss and torment, spiking up and plummeting down. Its intimate scale has made it appealing for smaller theaters across the country, though as Evening Star's imbalanced production reveals, it deserves a space more accommodating to its ambitions.
One problem begins immediately and persists to the end of the musical: an uneven audio balance. If you're positioned anywhere near the live three-piece band, the pianist, bassist, and violinist, while skillfully performing Brown's eclectic score, overwhelm the actors' voices. Crucial dialogue and lyrics are drowned out, and rather than underscoring the action, the music becomes an intrusive distraction. There is no credited sound designer, but any good one would have noticed this issue early.
The shoebox-sized space inside Sol Theatre also hampers Rosalie Grant's neck-craning direction. The way the show is structured, the actors necessarily need to be positioned on separate sides of the stage, but it works better in a proscenium arrangement, where the entire audience has a clear view of everything; in this production, depending on where you're sitting, half the audience stares at the back of an actor's head for almost the entire duration of certain songs.
Said actors try their hardest to overcome these inherent challenges — which on opening night included an embarrassingly premature lighting cue — with varying results. Grant possesses an ingratiating personality and an angelic voice deserving of a better microphone, though her acting doesn't meet the show's rigorous challenges, particularly the need to move from zero to abject sorrow in the show's opening number. A song later, her character's justified rage comes across more like the tantrum of a petulant child, and "Climbing Uphill/Audition Sequence," a song that brilliantly captures an actor's internal anxieties, isn't the hilarious, manic high point it should be.
Interestingly, when The Last Five Years ran at Actors' Playhouse in 2012, Janet Dacal played Cathy like a man-eating force of nature, dominating the production. Grant's Cathy is, by contrast, more consistently sullen, as fragile as a Fabergé egg. Sandomir, whose casting is just barely age-appropriate for his character, benefits from this maturity. His performance is winning and expressive, pooling the show's heft and significance almost wholly in his numbers.
Sean McLelland's set design is powered by a three-dimensional backdrop of oversized photo frames containing poignant images of the couple's better days, along with curated trinkets from their five years of ups and downs — playbills, champagne, flowers, a menorah. It's a creative reimagining, and in a production in such need of repair, we should be thankful for anything that works.