The language of the musical is, ironically, often just as much spectacle as it is sound. There is operatic pageantry choreographed into the DNA of most truly beloved musicals, from the immense exaggerations of Gilbert and Sullivan to the fantastic Hollywood-style dreamscapes of modern Broadway hits, all brought to life by a veritable army of costume-clad cast members.
Here, then, is the opposite: a cast of two people who barely interact directly, a small stage of half sets.
Yes, “The Last Five Years” isn’t exactly your typical drama club musical — and that seems to be what people like most about it.
Written and composed by Tony Award-winner Jason Robert Brown, the show has been praised by Rolling Stone, Variety and Time (which called it one of the best 10 shows of 2001) and it racked up a bunch of Drama Desk Awards and one Outer Critics Circle Award nomination, too.
It tells the story of one couple’s five-year relationship, from the thrills of new love to the painful separation. However, Jamie tells the story from beginning to end, while Catherine relates it in reverse, and the characters’ emotional timelines converge only once — at their wedding in the middle of the show.
A new inD Theatre revival of the show, directed by Shannon Dowling and starring Rachel Noll James and Jesse Smith, will take the stage at Rolling Bay Hall at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 18 and Saturday, Jan. 19, Friday, Jan. 25 through Sunday, Jan. 27 and Friday, Feb. 1 through Sunday, Feb. 3. It is recommended for audiences 13 and older, and the running time is approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.
Admission is free (donations are accepted), and reservations (highly recommended) can be made at www.indtheatre.org.
Smith, of Seattle, is a familiar face to Bainbridge Performing Arts show attendees, though this is his first inD Theatre production.
Relatively new to Bainbridge, but no stranger to the spotlight, James moved here from L.A. slightly more than a year ago. She first met Dowling when the two were directing separate offerings in the last Island Theatre Ten-Minute Play Festival, and under the inD Theatre banner as cast members in the recent production of “Under Milk Wood.”
It was, Dowling said, James who first chose the show to pitch to inD Theatre officials.
“How this happened,” Dowling said, “[inD Theatre has] been talking with artists about, ‘What do you want to do? What’s your passion project?’ And so mine was ‘Closed for Maintenance,’ which they opened [the season] with. Then [Rachel] said what about ‘The Last Five Years’ and asked me to direct.”
It will be the fledgling company’s first musical production, and material which inD officials were unfamiliar with, so Dowling set about, with help of intended cast and crew, to stage a pitch that could not be refused: a full reading with both stars and musical accompaniment.
It went over as well as they’d hoped.
Both stars and the director were familiar with the material, and James had in fact been in the show before.
“I actually played the role in college when I was 20 and too young to really fully understand it,” James said. “So I always had this notion that I’d love the chance to revisit it and do a full rehearsal process for it just because, the dynamics of relationships I’ve always loved, and always been fascinated by, and so I think getting to dive into that is always really fun.”
Smith marveled at the level of character study involved pre-production, something he said he’d never seen done for a musical before.
“We are on stage together for about a minute and thirty seconds throughout the whole show,” he said. “A lot of the rehearsal process has been building that relationship between us even though we’re not on stage [together] the whole time. Even when we’re talking to a wall, we’re talking to nobody, we know what the relationships is.
“I think it’s a different vibe for sure,” James added.
“I think on bigger musicals and less intimate shows it can be more about the flash and pizzazz of presenting, but this is literally a character study of two people and I think the show succeeds when you feel like you know both of them by the end, which is different than most musicals.”
The director agreed, saying those reticent of musicals should not turn away too quickly.
“To me it’s more like a play that happens to be a musical as well,” Dowling said. “They happen to be singing their feelings, but it’s more like a play than most musicals.”