The Last Five Years from Class 6 Theatre Is Light on Everything but Soul-Crushing Reality

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Love is weird -- I don't have to belabor that point, right? -- and everyone sees and feels it differently, and if you spend more than about two weeks with the same person, things get more and more complex, and it is definitely not like what literature and the arts show us, whether we're talking Shakespeare or porn.

That's unless you're brave enough to sit back and watch The Last Five Years, a little gem of a contemporary two-person musical that seems overly short and sketchy in some ways and far too deep and specific in others, sort of like good surgery. The current production by Class 6 Theatre (an almost newborn company), at Mesa Arts Center, is a respectable taste of what the show has to offer, and you should probably hustle over to see it, because it's not likely to be produced in the Valley super-often, and if and when it is, it probably won't be this good.

Composer Jason Robert Brown has been coasting for quite a while, in my opinion, on Songs for a New World, a collection of thematically connected numbers that stand alone in terms of characters and plot. That show began as a fistful of tunes from Brown's earlier failed attempts at writing musicals. Highbrow musical theater fans love this guy, mostly because they want to sing his songs. (Ideally at an audition, after which they'll get a job in a different play.)

As often happens with the work of niche composers, the cast albums are way more popular than the shows tend to be once someone throws them up on a stage. Brown has a Tony for Parade largely because Parade was nominated in one of the driest, saddest years ever for the American musical.

I do absolutely agree that his songs can be interesting -- Brown displays talent and discipline when it comes to melody and rhythm, and though his lyrics can be wordy and annoying, they boast clever rhymes and address thorny, sometimes abstract issues. He'll probably continue to be one of the hottest "new musical" writers for decades to come. When he works alone, though, without a commission to define his journey or a librettist to navigate it, Brown doesn't bother to color in all the spaces.

Sometimes this makes for a lovely showcase for individual talents, which is not necessarily my idea of a good time when I'm not related to one of the performers. Other times, it's like nouvelle cuisine -- you've sat there long enough to have a real meal, there were a couple of savory bites, but you're nowhere near satisfied. And sometimes it's up to the company to push the show over the hump, which they do in The Last Five Years.

First, though, here's the setup: Jamie the novelist and Cathy the actress meet, fall in love, get married, and break up, all in the space of five years. We see Cathy's story run backward from the end of the relationship to the beginning; Jamie's runs forward. They meet in the middle, which is the only time the two characters sing together.

Though the concept isn't a lot of work to grasp, it feels literally impossible that we're seeing five years go by (this is a one-act show that's under 90 minutes long) -- there must have been some months in between where the couple had some good times and just didn't sing about them. I hope.

It's kind of brutal, in a raw, emotional way. Jamie's an egocentric bastard who really loves Cathy, who is a big old insecure drag who really loves him. I liked him during only one number -- one really amazing, charming, vulnerable, heartbreakingly honest number -- but I respected him the whole time, because Brown gives him rational things to say. I felt awful for Cathy, but I also didn't want to ever, ever meet her in real life.

Okay, I didn't want to know Jamie, either. But I do know people like these, and so do you. We probably are people like these. That's Brown's main contribution to why the play works, when it does -- provided you can tolerate the candor.

Class 6's vital role here is the excellent choices made by its principals: a tiny live orchestra directed by Lincoln Wright, clean-but-flexible lighting and scenic design by Dori Brown, and the casting of Pete Good and Sarah Hayes, two people with rock-solid acting chops, which become extra-important when all you get to do is sing (which they can also do).

The Last Five Years continues through Sunday, October 24, at Mesa Arts Center, One East Main Street. Tickets are $23; order here or call 480-644-6500.

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