Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Marriage of elegant singing, staging in 'Five Years'
By Hap Erstein, Palm Beach Post Theater Writer

One of the worst things a reviewer can do is give away an ending. But when the playwright begins at the conclusion, the usual strictures are off.

Composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown is playing with time in his brilliant, compact The Last Five Years, a new two-character musical about the courtship, marriage and break-up of wunderkind novelist Jamie Wellerstein and struggling actress Cathy Hiatt.

Brown, one of the most promising writers for the musical theater to emerge in recent years, is not content to tell this semi-autobiographical story in a linear fashion.

For this is a tale of two people out of sync, and while Jamie's version of their time together does progress chronologically, Cathy's is told -- and mainly sung -- in reverse order. Her first number, Still Hurting, sifts through what went wrong between them as she is left alone and devastated in 2003. It is quickly followed by Jamie's delirium over having found and become infatuated by his Shiksa Goddess, in 1998.

And so it goes, with alternating solos, except for their one point of intersection and mutual happiness, a duet during their 2001 wedding.

Got it?

Many theatergoers did not when the show played all-too-briefly off-Broadway last year, but confusion is unlikely to crop up in the Florida Stage production, thanks to director Bill Castellino's simple, elegant, effective staging, Dan Kuchar's clever, locale-establishing set fragments and the projection of scene titles and dates on the side walls.

Add in the emotionally pitch-perfect performances of David Josefsberg and Jennifer Zimmerman, which quickly get us caring about Jamie and Cathy's plight, and the result is 85 intermissionless minutes of theater that strikes right to the heart, a haunting song cycle of love gone sour delivered with surprising, often ironic sweetness.

Brown, who won a Tony Award four years ago for Parade, is writing here in a more contemporary, accessible mode, ranging from light rock (Moving Too Fast) to soft ballad (If I Didn't Believe in You) to an ethnic fable of spousal support (The Schmuel Song). Brown knows how to infuse a lyric with character traits, using a conversational vocabulary and pop culture signposts from Leave It To Beaver to Crate and Barrel, marrying them to pleasurable melodies without ever drifting into sentimentality.

Boyish Josefsberg has a likeable presence that gets us siding early on with Jamie, and a singing voice that shifts gears smoothly with the demands of the eclectic score. Zimmerman hardly looks like the shiksa he describes, but she is a very expressive performer and quite funny at times, as in her inner thoughts during an audition. Together they seem well matched, which makes the irreconcilable differences of their characters all the more painful.

As with so many Florida Stage shows, you will find yourself dissecting its significance as you drive home. Was it their careers that drove them apart? Was Cathy jealous of Jamie's early success as she got stuck in summer stock hell? Why is marriage so difficult in today's world?

At a time when most musicals are pure escapism or a retread of a familiar movie, The Last Five Years is a small, personal story, dramatically heightened by its score and exceptionally well realized by Florida Stage. It even seems to have a happy ending, at least for one of the characters.

The Last Five Years