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Theater Review: A musical goes forward and backward in time and love at Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival

“The Last Five Years” is exquisite.

From the opening notes of an on-stage chamber music ensemble to the actors’ superb voices, you will be enthralled and carried away by raw emotion, humorous observations and a story of bittersweet love.

“The Last Five Years” continues through June 30, Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival (PSF), DeSales University. The opening night June 14 performance of the 90-minute musical (with no intermission) was seen for this review.

The premise of “The Last Five Years” is that of a couple’s relationship, marriage and divorce seen through the eyes, heard through the voices and projected from the heart. The twist is that one character tells the story from beginning to end, while the other character tells the story from end to beginning.

It’s a clever concept in the musical written and composed by Jason Robert Brown.

The 14-song, time-travel musical is especially entertaining, thoughtful and moving in the sensitive direction by Jason King Jones, PSF Artistic Director. The director’s challenge is especially delicate. Jones achieves the impression of two persons whirling through time, seeing each other, but not completely; feeling each other’s needs, though not fully, while sacrificing their own goals, or not. It’s a delicate balance and Jones makes the production believable.

The actors need to get close, but not too close. The illusion of time past, time future and time passing is unspoken, yet made apparent by Choreographer Devon Sinclair. Symbolically, the characters’ unresolved emotions ricochet off each other as the actors cross the stage, touching each other’s emotions, yet not quite touching each other (with a notable exception).

The staging itself in Schubert Theatre is intriguing by Scenic Designer Charlie Calvert, working with Lighting Designer Matthew F. Lewandowski II. A “brick-wall” backdrop displaying rows of some 20 black and white photographs of the couple is framed by three huge recessed, shadow-box representations of picture frames, each with strips of color-changing hues: a portal to past, present and future.

The songs by Jason Robert Brown are rarefied, wistful and cabaret-ready. These are songs of longing and regret, yearning and giddy fervor, and self-reflection and self-doubt. Think art songs (Michel Legrand), pop songs (Billy Joel) and lighter-than air Broadway fare (Stephen Sondheim).

The play is bolstered by the performances of singer-actors Chani Wereley (Catherine) and Benjamin Lurye (Jamie), each negotiating the songs’ depth, insistence and ephemeral quality with a seeming effortless alacrity that is astounding.

Wereley establishes the play’s emotional core right from the start with ”Still Hurting,” in a crystalline voice that is a sheer delight. Wereley gets the brave heartbreak songs, among them: “See, I’m Smiling,” “Climbing Uphill” and “I Can Do Better Than That.”

Lurye provides humorous moments with “Shiksa Goddess” and an ethnic remembrance with “The Schmuel Song.”

The two performers blend beautifully and powerfully on “The Next Ten Minutes,” “A Miracle Would Happen /When You Come Home to Me” and the finale, ”Goodbye Until Tomorrow/I Could Never Rescue You.”

The chamber music ensemble is enchanting, with Sound Designer David M. Greenberg achieving a wonderful blending of the musicians themselves and with the vocalists.

The ensemble, led by conductor Samuel Thorne Bagala, piano, with Linda Kistler, violin; Audrey Simons, cello; Mike Lorenz, guitar, and Ty Hooker-Haring, bass, explores the musicality of the songs, which have lovely melodies and arrangements.

“The Last Five Years” is a chamber music musical that is charming, challenging and memorable. Traveling to experience the PSF production is worth your time.

“The Last Five Years,” 7:30 p.m. June 12, 13, 14, 19, 20, 21, 26, 27, 28; 2, 7:30 p.m. June 15, 22, 29; 2 p.m. June 16, 23, 30; 6:30 p.m. June 18. Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, Schubert Theatre, Labuda Center for the Performing Arts, DeSales University, 2755 Station Avenue, Center Valley. 610-282-9455, https://pashakespeare.org/

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO BY KRISTY MCKEEVER Chani Wereley (Catherine), Benjamin Lurye (Jamie), “The Last Five Years,” Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival.