Perhaps this is the conundrum Jason Robert Brown had in mind when he wrote The Last Five Years, a two-person musical about a relationship in which the characters almost never relate to each other. This separation is further exaggerated by the artificial structure of having the man, Jamie, croon his side of the story in chronological order, ending in the present, while Cathy sings her experiences in the opposite direction. The result is more intellectually satisfying than emotionally fulfilling, since the actors hardly ever bounce off each other. But there are so many telling, wistful, and hilarious moments along the way that the show succeeds in spite of its arch conceits.
The undeniable star of the evening is Brown's song cycle, a varied and vigorous collection of tunes that range from pop simplicity to operatic complexity. Melodic and lyrical surprises abound as the characters take turns explicating their current state of self-involvement. Beginning at the end, Cathy starts the show with a most depressing number, "Still Hurting," which sketches her grievances with her now absent husband. That's followed by the boyish and exuberant Jamie, who, since he's at the beginning of their life together, is thoroughly smitten by his "Shiksa Goddess." Yes, to add one more disconnect to the mix, Jamie is a nice Jewish boy who is on the brink of explosive success with his first novel, while non-Jewish Cathy is an actor scrapping for parts in the heartless New York theater world.
It has been noted that The Last Five Years is a semiautobiographical rendition of Brown's initial career (he won a Tony for his first musical, Parade) and marriage -- and it prompted some legal action by his ex-wife when she learned that their matrimonial mishaps had been translated into a play. But she needn't have worried on that score, since Brown stitches his remarkable musical gifts to a story line that is achingly stereotypical: Husband gets rich and famous, and starts scoring nubile young chicks, as wife, her career in tatters, fights becoming the little woman at home dreaming of domestic bliss. While the arc of this saga is nothing new, there are many delicious interludes. As Cathy, pert Sandy Simon is endearing when she performs "A Summer in Ohio," a rueful recitation of acting in a summer stock company outside Cincinnati, where she shared a room with a stripper and her snake named Wayne. And she is fabulously frazzled in "Climbing Uphill," an interior monologue ditty that perfectly captures the trauma of the audition process, veering from crushing self-doubt ("I suck") to disdain for her judges ("These are the people who cast Linda Blair in a musical!").
When Simon passes the singing baton to Scott Plate, who plays Jamie, the tale takes on a sharper edge as we see a goofy, spirited young man morph into a celebrated writer with a smug belief in his own superiority. Plate is compelling as he tries to resist the women who are drawn to his blossoming fame and, later, as he reveals his impatience with Cathy's ordinariness ("I will not fail so you can be comfortable/I won't lose because you can't win"). Except for the moment when the two exchange rings, at roughly the halfway point of the 90-minute show, their story is revealed within the isolation of individual songs -- a challenging format for Simon and Plate, who act better than they sing. Even so, tender emotions do come through, particularly in Simon's lovely and poignant "I'm a Part of That."
Much of this production's success is due to director Victoria Bussert's detailed, briskly paced staging and her imaginative use of the excellent three-piece musical ensemble (Nancy Maier, Morgan Scagliotti, and Saeunn Thorsteinsdottir). At one time during his stud-author-on-the-prowl juncture, Jamie pats the pianist on her head and flirts with the female cello player, who gives him a smoldering glance in return. In fact, Bussert engineers so much intriguing stage business that one forgets the show is essentially a concert featuring a dozen solos and a couple of duets.
If you're fond of musicals with happy endings, look elsewhere. But if you enjoy tunes with attitude, the final vignette of The Last Five Years will stay with you: Jamie and Cathy sharing a bed and virtually nothing else as they sing their way into and out of a love that may never have existed.