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Musicals get away with being fluffy. A man and a woman singing prettily at each other — the bar is set low. This is why the heartfelt The Last Five Years from Magenta Giraffe Theatre will soar past everyone's expectations. The small-scale piece by writer/composer Jason Robert Brown, sharply conceived and beautifully executed, delivers such exquisite sadness that your heart may explode.

The musical has just two characters, Cathy (Anne Marie Damman) and Jamie (Kevin Young); their romantic relationship has an expiration date. When the play opens, Cathy bitterly sings that it's over, yet in Jamie's reality, they've just met. From the opposite ends of their five years together, they bookend each other: he moves forward in time; she goes back. Although they occasionally share the stage, the characters mostly occupy it alone for alternating songs; there is relatively little dialogue, but a variety of  ballads and some up-tempo, rock-adjacent numbers. The concept allows us to primarily see each character feeling alone within a relationship, revealing well-earned undercurrents of pain and second guessing, and making the few points of connection all the more bittersweet. Director Frannie Shepherd-Bates takes excruciating care to develop the individuals as well as the couple, constructing believable love and loss — simultaneously — between two people who almost never address each other. The staging weaves the two actors together without being intrusive, there are no lazy choices, and everything clicks.

The journey is propelled by the superbly cast Damman and Young. Although each had a few difficult notes in this challenging score, they are exuberant singers; as actors, they're more than capable of setting the stakes impossibly high. Each brings substantial emotional range to this intense piece, and they perform comfortably both alone and together. As the egotistical, headstrong Jamie, Young is charming and self-assuredly funny, but he also delicately grapples with remorse. Yet the real gem here is Damman; not only does she live up to the more challenging — and intriguing — task of devolving the story, but she relatably exposes us to Cathy's simultaneous devotion and self-doubt with blistering candor.

The music and production teams are also great credits to the production. Gwen Lindsay's open but carefully adorned calendar-themed set presents as many options as possible for these alternate-plane actors to comfortably coexist. Rhame Rayes's lighting design is also focused on staging possibilities, including a silhouette effect that's a bit too on the nose; however, the amber and blue blended lighting made for pleasantly ethereal states, subtly denoting the physical and emotional separation between Jamie and Cathy. Led by musical director Michael Fiedler, the four-piece orchestra did lovely work, visible just off of the stage, and their acoustics were always well balanced with the vocals.

Details like cell phones and the clearly modern approach to dating and cohabitation make this an unmistakably contemporary piece, but the hangups that weigh these characters down and drive them apart are drawn from centuries of human uncertainty and loneliness. The Last Five Years offers an honest look into a romance; it does not offer hope, but resonates through familiarity. One couldn't ask for such bleak and inevitable heartache to be any more tender.


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