By MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS
TRAVERSE CITY — Laura Ann Johnson was working on a song by Jason Robert Brown when she learned that the Old Town Playhouse planned to stage one of the musical theater composer's shows.
"When I saw it on the season I got so excited because his music is so great," said Johnson, of Glen Arbor, who stars in the upcoming OTP production of "The Last Five Years."
The contemporary musical opens Friday, Sept. 14, on the OTP MainStage. It tells the bittersweet story of a young couple who wrestle with the disparity of separate dreams — one as a writer, the other as an actor — and of the eventual collapse of their marriage. Jamie (Joseph Shoup) traces the relationship from beginning to end, while Catherine (Johnson) traces it from end to beginning.
"The unique structure of it is what's fascinating," said Shoup, an OTP and Riverside Shakespeare veteran best known for his work in "Rent" and "Henry V." "There's a particular impact that that structure gives that you don't get in an ordinary chronological show."
The musical also is unusual because of its two-person cast whose characters never exchange dialogue, said director Mychelle Hopkins. The only time audiences see them together is when their timelines intersect in the middle of the show.
"It's almost like a recital or a set of songs that just happened to be staged and woven into a story," said Johnson, an outdoor center director who last performed at OTP in "Fiddler on the Roof."
A classically trained vocalist who minored in music at DePauw University, Johnson sings seven songs in the show, including a duet with Shoup. She said tapping into the musical theater voice was her biggest challenge.
Brown, known for musicals like "13," "Parade" and "Songs for a New World," is considered one of Broadway's smartest and most sophisticated songwriters since Stephen Sondheim. He fuses pop-rock stylings with theatrical lyrics, making for "contemporary, thought-provoking and musically interesting" shows like this one, Hopkins said.
She said Brown's soulful, evocative score is typically difficult and includes changing keys, rhythms and time signatures. Pianist Craig Swatt will perform it on stage as part of the show's set. Swatt is music director for St. Patrick Catholic Church in Traverse City and teaches and conducts at Grand Traverse Area Catholic Schools.
Shoup, who studied theater at Western Michigan University and attended graduate school at the California Institute of Arts, said he was drawn to the show several years ago because of its realistic approach and profound impact.
"The subject matters have to do with the heart and that's a subject matter I can relate to on many levels," said Shoup, of Traverse City, a waiter at a French restaurant. "This show emphasizes that emotion. And the way it speaks about the emotion of love and the complications is very real (unlike in) fluffy, 1940s musicals. It hits you."
"The Last Five Years" runs through Saturday, Sept. 29. The curtain time for evening shows is 7:30 p.m., a half-hour earlier than in previous years.
Tickets are $25 for adults, $23 for seniors and students, and $14 for children at 947-2210 or oldtownplayhouse.com.