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Theater & art

‘Last Five Years’ has staying power to sing about

Betsy Wolfe, who will debut with the Metropolitan Opera next month, as Cathy in the “The Last Five Years” off Broadway.

Robert Ascroft/Second Stage Theatre

Betsy Wolfe, who will debut with the Metropolitan Opera next month, as Cathy in the “The Last Five Years” off Broadway.

The story is pretty straightforward. A young couple in New York meet and fall in love. His career as a novelist takes off instantly, while her acting career sputters. He’s the toast of the city, but she’s exiled to summer stock roles in Ohio. He’s tempted by glamorous women, while she dreams of having children. In a few years, they break up.

But something about the story of Jamie and Cathy in “The Last Five Years” has gotten firmly under the skin of a generation of musical theater fans, ever since the mostly sung-through musical first appeared in 2001. One obvious talking point is its unconventional structure: Each character tells the story of the relationship through a series of solos, with Cathy’s proceeding in reverse-chronological order while Jamie’s starts at the beginning. The temporal juxtaposition makes for some heart-wrenching scene transitions.

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The not-so-secret weapon, though, is Jason Robert Brown’s score. Fresh, contemporary, sometimes stylistically ambitious, it’s become a revered totem for fervent fans of the composer, particularly among younger audience members and self-professed theater nerds.

Adam Kantor, who will sing the part of Jamie in a concert version of “The Last Five Years” presented by Huntington Theatre Company on Saturday and Sunday, suggests the plainness of the essential story line may in fact be a key to the musical’s charm.

“It has wide, universal appeal. It’s a story about the ins and outs and highs and lows of being young and being in love,” he says, noting the success of a French-language production in Paris earlier this year. “It surpasses any age boundaries or any cultural boundaries.”

Kantor, whose first professional role was a lead in “Rent” on Broadway, will be joined by Betsy Wolfe; the two starred in an off-Broadway production of “The Last Five Years” at Second Stage Theatre last spring. A cast album was released last month, and though the pair has turned out the occasional concert performance of the material — most recently with Brown sitting in on piano for a weeklong engagement at 54 Below in New York — the Boston gig is a special one. There are no other performances on the calendar, and with Wolfe set to make her Metropolitan Opera debut at the end of the year (in Strauss’s “Die Fledermaus”), followed by a starring role in the musical adaptation of Woody Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway,” she doesn’t plan on having much time to revisit Brown’s score for the next year or two.

Brown, who will be an artist-in-residence at Harvard University this spring, borrowed from his own life story for “The Last Five Years,” including his early success (his score for “Parade” netted him a Tony Award at 28) and his failed first marriage. He directed Kantor and Wolfe in this year’s revival. Wolfe says she was initially concerned about the musical’s autobiographical nature.

“I was worried that the material was going to be so precious to him and that maybe there’d be some reservations about interpreting it, or that it would need to be played out in a way that he remembered it,” she says. “But he absolutely handed us the reins from the beginning. It’s a part of him, but it’s in its own little box right now, and we were allowed to open it up and play with it. He’s definitely connected to it, but he released it in a way, too.”

Brown is a witty composer. Huntington artistic director Peter DuBois describes the score as having “a pop-musical theater crossover vibe.” Cathy’s backstage musing, “A Summer in Ohio,” oozes the smooth swing of a chanteuse’s theme song, belying its wry complaints about the lack of Vietnamese food out in the boondocks and sharing a dressing room with a stripper. The playful and genuinely funny “Shiksa Goddess” — in which the Jewish Jamie exults at finally finding a love who’s “not from Hebrew school,” after having “Shabbos dinner on Friday nights with every Shapiro in Washington Heights” — turns, anachronistically, on a montuno piano figure suggestive of Latin jazz.

The concert performance, with just two actors and piano accompanist Andrew Resnick (who also appears on the new cast album), will put the focus squarely on the songs.

“You just get at the meat of the show, which is this incredible music,” Kantor says. “You really get to focus in on the music and the lyrics, which are just glorious, really.”

Brown’s songs have proved particularly popular among younger audience members. Kantor says that’s helped along by the extent to which they’ve seeped into actor education. “If you’re learning the craft of acting — whether you’re in a college, conservatory, or high school, or even postgrad — if you’re going through the gamut of contemporary music theater, these songs are a cornerstone. You can’t go to a music theater school in America and not go through this material.”

Adam Kantor will sing the role of Jamie in the Huntington production opposite Wolfe.

Robert Ascroft/ Second Stage Theatre

Adam Kantor will sing the role of Jamie in the Huntington production opposite Wolfe.

Indeed, the first production he worked on as a freshman at Northwestern University was a version of “Parade,” for which he was part of the costume crew, washing the cast’s underwear after every performance. (For a later student production of “The Last Five Years,’ he auditioned unsuccessfully for the role of Jamie.)

In a full production of the musical, the two actors are rarely onstage together — they share one proper duet, when their timelines intersect at the point of Jamie’s marriage proposal. In between numbers, they’d typically be backstage dealing with a series of quick-changes. But for rehearsals, Brown had each actor onstage for the other’s songs, providing reactions that helped shape each performance. This technique continues to inform Kantor and Wolfe’s performance of the material.

“We wanted to have real responses, real reactions, and a real connection,” Wolfe explains. “We were talking to each other, and we’d respond to each other. And then one day Jason took the scene partner away, but all the reactions and emotions and actions were still very much there. It was so visible for me, I could still see [Adam] there.” For his part, Kantor says he continues to address the songs to Wolfe-as-Cathy when he sings the odd excerpt for an event.

For a show that’s never advanced further than two relatively abbreviated runs off-Broadway, “The Last Five Years” has shown staying power. And it’s not going away — a film adaptation, directed by Richard LaGravenese (“Behind the Candelabra”), is now in postproduction. Jamie and Cathy’s fate doesn’t get any happier, but the cycle of their love affair and breakup seems destined to keep on repeating.

Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremydgoodwin.com.
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