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A Cult Musical Inspired by a Failed Marriage is Shaping Up to Be a Richmond Theater Highlight

“The Last Five Years” runs Sept. 22 through Oct. 14 at the Basement theater.

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When J.S. Fauquet planned his wedding two years ago, he knew the song he wanted to walk down the aisle to: “The Next Ten Minutes” from the musical “The Last Five Years.”

“It’s a gorgeous song,” says Fauquet, whose friend and local actor Matt Shofner performed the number at his River Road wedding. “I’ve loved this show since it premiered Off-Broadway 15 years ago.”

Now, Fauquet is getting up close and personal with one of his favorite songs again as musical director for TheatreLab and Yes, And’s production of “Five Years,” which begins previews this week. Starring local powerhouse performers Alexander Sapp and Christie Jackson, it’s shaping up to be one of the highlights of the season.

While the show might not have household name recognition, it’s achieved cult status among the theater fans. Penned by composer, lyricist and playwright Jason Robert Brown, the semi-autobiographical musical is inspired by Brown’s failed marriage. The show follows the relationship of Jamie, a novelist whose star is on the rise, and Cathy, a struggling actress, as they fall in and out of love.

“The thing that’s most compelling about it is [that] Jamie tells his story chronologically, and Cathy moves backwards in time from the close of their marriage,” director Chelsea Burke says. “They only actually meet in the middle at their wedding, and every other song in the show is pretty much a solo, from each person’s perspective.”

For Jackson, one of the show’s many challenges is portraying Cathy’s relationship in reverse, from its sad ending to its hopeful beginning.

“I have to start emotionally at a really tough place at the top of the show, at the end of the relationship, and I have to move backwards,” Jackson says. “It’s an emotional challenge to make sure I’m in the right emotional place throughout the show.”

Projecting her character’s reverse emotional arc isn’t the only challenge for Jackson. Both she and co-star Sapp spend much of the show singing to each other’s characters — except that the other actor isn’t on stage.

“Each song is so intimate with the other person, but they’re not there for you to interact with,” Sapp explains. “This show has really challenged me in ways that I don’t think I’ve ever been challenged onstage before.”

Leading a chamber group of six stringed instruments to play the show’s score, Fauquet says the music is taxing as well.

“[Brown is] known for the difficulty of his music, and that’s no exception here. It’s certainly more of a challenge to play than 90 percent of other musicals,” Fauquet says. “In a play, you’re just focusing on that emotional journey. Here, they both have to do it while singing this really technical music.”

Jackson concurs.

“This [is] probably one of the hardest things that I’ve done,” Jackson says. “[This show] creates a whole different set of challenges that I’ve never dealt with before, one of them being just the way that the audience is set up.”

Fitting with TheatreLab’s fifth season theme of Picking Sides — emphasizing that there are two sides to every story — “The Last Five Years” and every other show it produces this year will be in an alley staging, meaning the audience will sit on two sides of the stage, facing each other. Not only will this allow the audience members to see the reaction of the other side, but it will create a physical closeness with the performers.

“There are going to be moments of the show where the audience is less than 2 feet from the actors,” Burke says. “Having that sort of proximity to the actors, and having that sort of intimacy and honesty, is something that I’m finding really exciting.”

As demanding as “The Last Five Years” might be on its performers, Burke stresses the universality of the musical above all.

“Anybody that has ever been in love, had a crush, had their heart broken — anything like that can relate to it,” Burke says. “I hope that everyone is able to leave having felt something, that feeling of having loved.” S

TheatreLab and Yes, And’s production of “The Last Five Years” runs Sept. 22 through Oct. 14 at the Basement, 300 E. Broad St. For information, visit theatrelabrva.org or call 506-3533.

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