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Review: Elements Goes for the Unusual with ‘The Last Five Years’

We know about star-crossed lovers. Sometimes lovers meet by crossing paths, and even get cross with each other. But lovers with crossed timelines?

In keeping with its tradition of small casts and powerful material, Elements Theatre Collective presents The Last Five Years, a heart-wrenching yet often very funny tale of two people, Cathy (Emily Jewell) and Jamie (Elisha Schaefer), falling in — and out — of love. She is a struggling actress, he a promising novelist. They meet, woo, get married and break up in the space of five years.

This is certainly not out of the ordinary in real life, but it may well be the most unusual piece of theater you’ve ever seen. Cathy’s storyline runs in reverse chronological order, while Jamie’s runs forward. It is fascinating to see his story proceeding from start to finish as per usual, while hers starts at the end and unspools backward like a series of flashbacks. Oh, and it’s a musical with virtually no spoken dialogue.

Written and composed by Jason Robert Brown, The Last Five Years premiered in 2001. It is so closely autobiographical that the woman involved, his “Cathy,” threatened legal action on the grounds that it represented her too recognizably. He responded by changing one of the songs so she was not so identifiable, and apparently that was enough.

Sara Rademacher, co-artistic director of Elements along with Jewell, directs what is really a series of songs, spanning many genres, telling the story of this young, hopeful couple eventually accepting the sad reality that their relationship has failed. Excellent live piano accompaniment is provided by Ben Saunders, and musical direction is by Stacie Anthes.

Jewell is engaging and energetic, able to go from bitter to disillusioned to hopeful to positively giddy as the evening progresses. She has appeared in many local stage productions since she arrived in town three years ago, with Elements, Out Of The Box Theatre Co. and at Santa Barbara City College. As always, her voice is gorgeous — powerful and nuanced — and her comic timing is impeccable.

Schaefer, last seen in Out of the Box’s production of Assassins last year, is low-key in his energy, befitting his more reserved character. But he projects a great sense of excitement at the start of the relationship, and a believable weariness as it progresses. His voice is smooth and strong, and he is able to take on the many necessary styles with ease.

Don’t miss this highly unconventional and exceptional work of musical theater, and end up living with regret like Cathy and Jamie. As with all of Elements’ shows, admission is free and it is staged through April 28 at various imaginative spaces around the Santa Barbara area, including Java Station, the Santa Barbara Public Library and McDermott Crockett Mortuary.

Click here for tickets and information.

— Justine Sutton is a Santa Barbara freelance writer and frequent Noozhawk reviewer. The opinions expressed are her own.

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