Stellar performances befit structure of splendid love story
Special to The News Journal

A bittersweet love story doesn't spring to mind as the foundation of a musical, but that's at the heart of the Philadelphia Theatre Company's area première of Jason Robert Brown's Drama-Desk-Award winning "The Last Five Years," a small show that provides entertainment out of all proportion to its size.

Actually, it's only small in the strictest of senses: It has just two cast members. Fortunately, they're perfectly balanced and more than up to the demands of this cunning show, which has the two on stage together lots of the time, but has them interact just once. In fact, the show has but one brief moment when one or the other of them isn't singing, and that when Jamie (Wayne Wilcox) is reading from his novel.

The story tells of the five-year-long relationship between Cathy (Nicole Van Giesen), an aspiring actress, and Jamie, a writer on the verge of success when the two meet.

The play's structure is a dazzling bit of business. As it opens, Cathy is picking up scattered photographs on the heels of the failure of their marriage. While she sings the soulful "Still Hurting," Jamie is onstage exulting in the attention being paid to his first novel. The two share the same stage, but they're five years apart in time.

Knowing how things turn out for them in no way detracts from our interest in their story. We get their different takes on their early romance in Jamie's funny and exuberant "Shiksa Goddess" and Cathy's more cautious "Moving Too Fast." Those songs reflect their different temperaments, which are at the heart of their undoing. Cathy is needy; Jamie isn't much of a giver.

Their situation is complicated by the fact that their careers are on very different tracks. Jamie is enjoying unbridled success: his first novel's first chapter appears in Atlantic Monthly; his work appears in The New Yorker. Cathy is doing summer tours in Ohio (she sings of doing a show with "a gay midget playing Tevye" and "sharing a room with a former stripper and her snake"). She ruefully describes the grueling, ego-smothering process of auditioning in the wonderful "Climbing Uphill."

Brown displays a terrific sense of humor in his songs, and he's no slouch when it comes to packing them with emotion. He also changes tempos and pace skillfully.

Director Joe Calarco stages the piece skillfully, working with a minimalist set by Michael Fagin enhanced by projected photos and film clips by Michael Clark. Best of all are Van Giesen and Wilcox who have fabulous voices and can act up a storm while they're singing.

There's not a false note in "The Last Five Years." It's simply splendid entertainment.

Leo Irwin is a Wilmington free-lance writer.