It’s one of those shows that has almost become too familiar. In the last two decades every number of Jason Robert Brown’s song cycle – in which gifted writer Jamie meets jobbing actor Cathy, he sings their story from love at first sight to their breakup, she in reverse – has become a staple of musical theatre stars’ repertoires, sung endlessly in piano bars and at cabaret nights.
Which is what makes Jonathan O’Boyle’s production so smart: there’s a grand piano in the middle of the stage, and George Dyer’s clever new orchestrations give the leading piano lines over to Oli Higginson’s Jamie and Molly Lynch’s Cathy to play. It’s like we’re in one of those piano bars, especially with Lee Newby’s costumes: an untucked tux for Jamie and a stunningly stylish white trouser suit for Cathy.
This isn’t gimmick. In abstracting the show slightly, O’Boyle adds to the unbridgeable distance between the two of them. They interact only in the central duet, in a beautiful moment when Jamie throws his arms around Cathy.
Higginson and Lynch are insanely good, acing every note while creating real, relatable people – and also playing the piano. Higginson takes Jamie from bounding ball of energy to guilt-riddled douchebag, and a masterstroke by Lynch – one of the best young performers around – is the embellishment she adds to the line “belting as high as they can” in the audition song.
O’Boyle is forensic in the way he pulls apart familiar material, interrogates every line, and reconstructs it in a minutely detailed way. He doesn’t reinvent Robert Brown’s material, but does completely revitalise it, so that it’s like seeing the show, thrillingly, for the first time.