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Love and loss — with music — on stage at Red Branch

Theaters usually take a short break between productions in order to catch their breath, but Columbia's Red Branch Theatre Company is about to have two musicals running in repertory that hopefully won't have the theater staff running out of breath.

The pairing is titled "The Love/Loss Cycle." It consists of "The Last Five Years," opening on Friday, April 4, and "john and jen," opening on April 18. The production schedules overlap late in the run, and there are even two dates on which you can see both shows on the same day.

Helping keep things on track is the director of both shows, Stephanie Lynn Williams, who is this theater company's co-founder and executive producer. Music direction for both shows is by Tiffany Underwood Holmes, who is the company's managing director.

"We've been interested in doing something like this for quite a while," Holmes said. "These are both chamber musicals that lend themselves to our space, and they're both two-person shows built around really personal relationships."

"The Last Five Years" is the better-known of the two shows, with previous productions in the area including Everyman Theatre and Vagabond Players in Baltimore City.

Brown ("Songs for a New World," "Parade" and the current Broadway production of "The Bridges of Madison County") is no stranger to this Columbia theater, though. The New York-based composer and the Red Branch staff have a mutual friend, and so Brown's awareness of Red Branch led to him performing at the keyboard during a cabaret fundraiser held at Red Branch on March 17 of this year.

The two actors appearing in the Red Branch production of "The Last Five Years," Kurt Boehm and Jennifer W. Culotta, will have a great deal of singing to do — and not only because it's a two-actor show. There's almost nodialogue in the show, with the songs explaining the characters' romantic relationship.

The most unusual aspect of "The Last Five Years," however, is that it has a distinctive narrative structure in which the male character, who is a novelist, sings about their five-year relationship in conventional chronological order, while the female character, who is an actress, sings about their relationship in a reverse chronology that starts with their breakup and ends with their promising first meeting. The show mostly consists of alternating solo songs, with their only duet appearing halfway through the show when they get married.

Holmes said that "putting these two musicals together is a good way to introduce people to a piece that is lesser known," namely, "john and jen." This show has music by Andrew Lippa ("The Addams Family") and lyrics by Tom Greenwald. The Red Branch production of "john and jen," which stars Patrick Prebula and Danielle Sherry, follows Jen's relationship with her brother, John, and her son, also named John, over a 40-year period.

Although it's certainly a challenge to present two musicals in repertory, these are both compact two-character musicals. Moreover, both shows will make use of the same set, which will be subject to some alteration for the specific staging requirements of each show.

"The Last Five Years" will be performed April 4, 5, 11, 12, 25 and 26 at 8 p.m., and April 13 and 19 at 3 p.m.; and "john and jen" April 18, 19, May 1 and 3 at 8 p.m., and April 26 and 27 at 3 p.m., at Red Branch Theatre Company, 9130-I Red Branch Road in Columbia. Tickets purchased in advance are $20, $18 for seniors and students; tickets are $22 at the door. Those who would like to see both shows on the same day can do so on April 19 or 26, with a $36 ticket good for both shows on those days. Call 410-997-9352 or go to http://www.redbranchtheatrecompany.com.

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