WILMINGTON — Relationships can be a tricky beast — their nuance, a delicate balancing act. Playwright Jason Robert Brown’s musical, “The Last Five Years,” traverses this murky territory, specifically exploring how two people meet, fall in love and break up.
Produced by Opera House Theater Company, the musical will open Apr. 29 and run for two weekends at Thalian Hall’s Ruth and Bucky Stein Theater.
Showgoers will recognize the work from its 2015 film adaptation, directed by Richard LaGravenese and starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan. Locally, Paul Teal and Jordan Davis will take on the 20-something husband-and-wife Jamie Wellerstein and Cathy Hiatt.
Jamie is finding success as a budding novelist, while Cathy is dealing with the hardships of a flailing acting career. Throughout the almost two-hour show, both are coming to grips with an inevitable divorce. The audience feels every emotive battle endured, beginning to end — or end to beginning, depending on which narrative is highlighted.
“Cathy tells the story from the end of their marriage,” OHTC artistic director Justin Smith explained of the plot’s timeline. “Jamie begins from when they first meet.”
Traditionally in the 20-year-old musical, the characters approach their love story in their individual worlds and from different ends of the spectrum: Cathy from the divorce, working backward through the last five years, and Jamie from the start, moving forward. The story and characters only coincide at their wedding.
“You are seeing the rise and fall almost simultaneously, which I think is beautifully heartbreaking,” explained Teal, who plays Jamie.
In Smith’s rendition, the director abandons separating the couple. Instead, he chose for them to co-exist onstage, each person shadowing the other, as they work through the highs and lows.
“It shows just how loved ones can outshine or outgrow one another,” the director said.
The structure of the story runs parallel to one recurring theme: The betrothed seemingly are never on the same page. Divergent paths separate them, as the wife struggles just to get an audition, while her husband is at parties and book signings enjoying the fruits of his labor.
When their worlds do collide, Davis, who plays Cathy, said “it makes the emotion of the moment that much stronger.”
The play focuses on the importance of timing. To evoke as much, a clock acts as the centerpiece of the set design — a reflection of the thespians playing off each other’s timelines. It often makes for “an acting workout,” according to Teal, who appeared in the second season of Netflix’s “Outer Banks” and recently wrapped on HBO’s upcoming “The Staircase.”
“You are jumping into a different part of the character’s life and a different emotion, sometimes with only 20 seconds to prepare,” he explained.
Smith praised Teal’s approach, stating the actor brings the “total package” to the role.
“He never stops working,” he said. “His preparation is second to none and you add that to his raw talent, he could play this part anywhere.”
Davis grounds the show, the director added. At the forefront of the actress’ mind is making Cathy relatable so the audience can feel her plight. “Pretty much everyone has had their heart broken,” said Davis, who taps deep into that loss.
“You really feel everything she is going through,” Smith said. “There is a strength in her Cathy that may normally be played or felt as pitiful or angry.”
Taking on the role has not been easy for Davis. In fact, she said Cathy is the most challenging character she has portrayed to date. A major hurdle has been sustaining vocal prowess. The story is sung in full through 14 songs, with the actors switching off tracks, except for three duets.
“It’s essentially an opera,” Smith said.
“It’s crucial to make sure we take care of ourselves and our voices,” Davis said. “Jason Robert Brown is undeniably a musical genius in my eyes.”
The lyrics of the songs work through expected anger and happiness, intimacy and despondency, hope and helplessness. The music matches the mood and tone shifts through the various phases of love, as audiences watch it blossom to life and wilt to its closure.
“I think it’s a really honest depiction of two sides of a relationship and audiences will find that they can relate to both characters,” Teal said.
“The Last Five Years” will be scored live by a four-piece band, led by Brian Whitted, and will run Apr. 29 through May 8. Shows take place Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m., at Thalian Hall’s Ruth and Bucky Stein’s Studio Theater, 310 Chestnut St. Tickets are $32.
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