When you walk into a small, narrow theatre space, preparing to watch a musical with two actors, one musician, and the bare essentials in set design, you lower the bar. Pure Theatre’s production of The Last Five Years upends every expectation of a poor-man’s musical with terrific acting and singing.

Struggling actress Cathy (Emily Wilhoit) and upcoming author Jamie (David Mandel) meet, fall in love, marry, fall apart, and break up — almost entirely in song. The twist is that the actors play the story in two different directions. We meet Jamie when the couple first meets and move forward, but we meet Cathy as she’s reading the Dear John note five years later and work back to the introduction.

The Last Five Years is by Broadway composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown and befits the best of the Great White Way. Even after Cathy has painfully relived the couple’s dissolution, you’re still rooting for them to make it right up to the end.

Wilhoit gives it all with each song and easily surmounts the difficult task of walking backwards through Cathy’s life crisis. Mandel is just as capable in handling Jamie’s complicated metamorphosis, but he struggles a little with the music. It works to great effect during the funnier numbers, but when the relationship goes south, it’s a bit of a drawback.

The staging, which could have been a mess of “Where the hell are we?,” was well done and the direction from Sharon Graci was so nuanced that each movement seemed natural, including silent moments out of the spotlight. Graci’s biggest problem is that we’ll expect something just as enjoyable and well-crafted next time. The bar has most definitely been raised.

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