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MTC’s ‘Last Five Years’ a joyful event

One (the only?) positive about entering year two of COVID-19 is that performers have had plenty of time to hone the new skills needed to keep working during a pandemic.

There was a lot to like about Millennial Theatre Company’s first online event, “Songs for the New World,” which debuted in October. However, its new production, “The Last Five Years,” is a quantum leap forward.

Both were written by Jason Robert Brown. I think “The Last Five Years” is a better piece, but that’s hardly the only reason that MTC’s staging is so enjoyable.

Some of the improvements are logistical. “Songs” had a large cast scattered across eight states and two countries, and most of the singers filmed their own performances. Director Joe Asente could provide remote direction and guidance and request specific shots, but he ultimately had to work with what he got.

“The Last Five Years” only has two actors, Joshua Fleming and Rosie Bresson, and Asente was able to work more closely with them and create a more visually interesting show. Their familiarity with the musical and each other (Asente directed Bresson and Fleming in a 2018 production of the show at Hopewell Theatre) also adds to the depth all three are able to bring to their work.

Both Fleming and Bresson have beautiful, expressive voices, and Asente and music director Savannah Florkowski (who makes a couple of cameo appearances on camera as an audition accompanist for Bresson’s character) get strong performances from both.

The gimmick of the show is that it tells the love story of Jamie, a novelist whose career is on the rise, and Cathy, a struggling actor, from different directions. Jamie’s songs are in chronological order, starting at the beginning of their relationship in March 2015. Those songs are juxtaposed with Cathy’s that start at the end of their marriage in November 2020 and go backward.

There are scenes where they are on camera together, but the only time their stories truly unite is for “A Miracle Would Happen” / “When You Come Home to Me,” the songs that accompany their engagement and wedding ceremony.

That juxtaposition is striking from the first songs — the anger and bitterness Bresson conveys while singing “Still Hurting” followed by the unbridled joy of Fleming’s rendition of “Shiksa Goddess.”

“The Last Five Years” was shot around the Mahoning Valley with Mill Creek MetroParks standing in for Central Park and being used as the site for the wedding. The actors recorded their songs in advance and had to match their on-camera work to what they already recorded. Yeah, there are a few places where the lip syncing is off noticeably, but the two actors make the on-camera work feel entwined with those vocals. They even incorporate elements they couldn’t have counted on when they did the initial recordings, such as when Fleming cleverly uses the snow as a prop, brushing it off of a ledge to punctuate a lyric, during “Moving Too Fast.”

Asente adds a few stylistic, visual touches to the camera work while never pulling focus from the performances. One of his best creative choices is hiring Craig Latchaw to animate the story Jamie tells in “The Schmuel Song.” It takes one of the weaker tunes in the script and turned it into a highlight.

“The Last Five Years” is available online through April 30, and it’s well worth taking a break from whatever viewers are binging on one of the streaming services to support this quality local production.

If you go …

Millennial Theatre Company’s “The Last Five Years” will be available online through April 30. Tickets are $20 for single viewer or $30 for a family ticket and are available online at www.millennialtheatre.org/tickets.

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