You don’t need much acquaintance with the musical The Last Five Years to bask in the vocal chops performed by the two players, Thomas Gjere and Bailey Carlson.
Gjere is completely successful in delivering the story-telling lyrics to those in the audience who’ve never heard them before and Carlson comes close to matching that accomplishment and does even better in communicating the emotional stress of a failing relationship. That’s really all you need to enjoy an impressive package of songs by Jason Robert Brown (Parade, Bridges of Madison County.)
But full appreciation of the Omaha Community Playhouse show directed by Susan Baer Collins also requires some comfort with Brown’s two-way chronology: As Jamie, a writer, Gjere tells the story of those five years from hello to goodbye in the usual forward chronology. As Cathy, a musician, Carlson starts her story at the end of those five years and retreats to the happier beginning.
For example, Cathy begins by singing “Still Hurting,” still feeling the pain of what she’s lost, and Jamie, from his “Hebrew” perspective exults his future now that he’s found a “Shiksa Goddess.” As their stories proceed in opposite directions, the most striking theme in their conflicting personal histories stems from the fact that Jamie’s writing career flourishes while Cathy’s musical road is rocky.
Not far into their relationship, Jamie sings about it “Moving Too Fast,” and it isn’t too much longer before Cathy, in one of the most memorable numbers, sings plaintively about “When You Come Home to Me.”
In between, Gjere and Carlson keep adding new dimensions to their performances with his “The Schmuel Song” and her “A Summer in Ohio” as her career struggles separate them. With Jim Boggess in the orchestra pit both conducting and playing piano, a five-member orchestra adds perfect accompaniment.
Finally, Cathy sings “Goodbye Until Tomorrow” and Jamie just says goodbye, singing, “I Could Never Rescue You.”
So director Collins delivers as solid and sparkling a version of this story as you could hope for and only two factors might diminish your appreciation: discomfort with the separation of the two actors as their musical narrations move in opposite directions (they only join together in a wedding scene), and the pandemic experience. Healthwise, it is appropriate that we all sit well apart in a widespread main theater, but it makes one long for a packed house where we share our appreciative applause rather than hearing it scattered sparsely in a large auditorium.
The Last Five Years runs through March 21 on the Hawks Mainstage of the Omaha Community Playhouse at 69th and Cass with performances at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are available at the box office or by calling 402.553.0800.