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updated: 5/23/2014 6:28 AM

Metropolis' 'Last Five Years' eloquently examines romance

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  • Elissa Newcorn and Matt Edmonds star as a young couple whose reminiscences make up Jason Robert Brown's two-handed musical "The Last Five Years."

      Elissa Newcorn and Matt Edmonds star as a young couple whose reminiscences make up Jason Robert Brown's two-handed musical "The Last Five Years."
    courtesy of Metropolis Performing Arts Centre

  • Jamie (Matt Edmonds) recalls the early days of his romance with his soon-to-be-wife.

      Jamie (Matt Edmonds) recalls the early days of his romance with his soon-to-be-wife.
    courtesy of Metropolis Performing Arts Centre

  • Cathy (Elissa Newcorn) recalls her romance and marriage to Jamie in reverse -- from its end to its beginning -- in "The Last Five Years," a musical by Jason Robert Brown running through June 15 at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights.

      Cathy (Elissa Newcorn) recalls her romance and marriage to Jamie in reverse -- from its end to its beginning -- in "The Last Five Years," a musical by Jason Robert Brown running through June 15 at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights.
    courtesy of Metropolis Performing Arts Centre

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Every marriage ends.

The end may come after a lifetime together, the fulfillment of a promise: "till death do us part." It may come sooner, accompanied by legal documents that list as the reason, "irreconcilable differences."

Either way, the end is ever-present: That bittersweet premise underscores "The Last Five Years," the distinct and eloquent chamber musical by composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown, currently in a lovely revival at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights.

This adult-rated show marks a departure for Metropolis, which typically offers contemporary, pop-centered musical revues that almost always end happily. Brown's semiautobiographical "The Last Five Years," which premiered in 2001 at Northlight Theatre in Skokie, is not that kind of show. You may shed a tear. And you won't necessarily leave humming the score. But the experience will stay with you.

An emotional chronicle of a couple's relationship from courtship to marriage to dissolution, Metropolis' production is cannily directed by Lauren Rawitz who -- without being overly sentimental -- reveals this tale's unflinching truth most notably in a final glance filled with promise as well as resignation. As codas go, this one is brilliant.

Rawitz's staging, together with exquisite music direction from conductor/pianist Charlotte Rivard-Hoster, and the warmth and vulnerability of the show's fresh-faced stars, make this production the best-sounding, most fully-realized show I've experienced at the Metropolis. Much of the credit rests with Brown's droll, truthful writing and with his delicate pop score that alternates between ebullient and poignant (literally) without missing a beat. To that end, Metropolis' production also earns kudos for its fine sextet made up of violinist Laura Chafer, cellists David Richards and Alison Rowe, bassist Mason Cormie and guitarist Bob Gerics.

Matt Edmonds plays Jamie, a wry, up-and-coming Jewish writer who falls for shiksa goddess Cathy (Elissa Newcorn), a sweet, self-conscious actress whose career doesn't take off with the same lightning speed as Jamie's. In fact, her career doesn't take off at all, which is one reason for the friction between them.

Each recalls the story of their lives together. Cathy narrates the tale beginning at the end of their marriage; Jamie recounts it from their promising first meeting. While their songs inform each other, the characters don't interact -- except for their mid-show marriage ceremony, which unfolds as a rapturous duet titled "The Next Ten Minutes." Its lush music and genuine lyrics are enough to inspire even a confirmed singleton to try life as part of a duo.

Yet cracks surface in the form of insecurity and suspicion, ego and selfishness, exasperation and resentment -- issues that ultimately prove insurmountable.

That unfortunate reality is echoed in set designer Kaitlin Donelon's set, which consists of a towering backdrop of moving boxes. Those same cardboard boxes surround the playing space -- Jamie's office and Cathy's dressing room with its makeup table and floral patterned chair -- where the couple unspool their individual tales. As visual metaphors go, these boxes -- representing simultaneously both the early and final stages of a relationship -- are spot-on.

As for the well-matched Edmonds and Newcorn, they are skilled, personable singer-actors. That said, both sounded a bit bombastic at Sunday's opening. Belting isn't appropriate for this show, which requires a more delicate vocal touch. I suspect it may have been the result of opening night jitters, or perhaps an amplification issue.

But that's a minor quibble in what is a major achievement for Metropolis.

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