Fri, Mar. 21, 2003

Doomed love, set touchingly to music
By Douglas J. Keating
Inquirer Theater Critic

'Don't we get to be happy, Cathy, somewhere down the line?" Jamie plaintively sings to his wife toward the end of The Last Five Years, the gem of a chamber musical presented by the Philadelphia Theatre Company.

When Jamie asks the question, it is largely rhetorical. He's aware that his marriage is coming apart, and because the musical begins with Cathy entering their apartment after Jamie has left, the audience never entertains hope for their happiness.

Nonetheless, composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown generates such enormous sympathy for his characters that you find your romantic self wishing for a happy ending - even though, if one actually occurred, you would hate that Brown concocted a conclusion so at odds with the emotional truth of his story.

It's a sad but engaging story that Brown tells in The Last Five Years, but that's just part of the appeal of the show at Plays & Players Theatre. Brown won a Tony Award for his work on the Broadway musical Parade and a Drama Desk Award for this current show when it played Off-Broadway, and he's regarded as one of the country's best young theater talents. His brilliance is on full display in The Last Five Years.

The music in Brown's sung-through score, like that of Stephen Sondheim, is tailored to serve the lyrics, which are intelligent, perceptive and witty when they need to be, and nearly always appropriate to the situation. They are not the type of songs you hum as you exit the theater, but they are such a marvelous marriage of music and words that they are exhilarating to experience within the context of the play.

They are also extremely well sung by the two performers, Nicole Van Giesen and Wayne Wilcox. Both navigate Brown's sometimes difficult musical patterns with aplomb. Wilcox is adept at expressing the sense and emotion of his songs, but Van Giesen is superb. She makes the songs for Cathy appear so natural to her character that she seems to have written them herself.

Director Joe Calarco has cast the actors shrewdly. Handsome, with dark, curly hair, Wilcox is just right as the brash, ambitious writer who, as he sings in one of Brown's wittier songs, "Shiksa Goddess," was initially attracted to Cathy because she was different from all the Jewish girls he had been dating. Wilcox's Jamie plays in apt contrast to Van Giesen's light-haired, fair-featured Cathy, a diffident, aspiring actress from the heartland.

Each character tells his or her story from a different perspective. Cathy goes back in time from the breakup to the marriage, while Jamie moves forward from their introduction through their courtship. Their narratives meet at the marriage and then proceed to the breakup.

The characters alternate solo songs, each expressing thoughts about him or herself and the other. There are almost no duets, and the structure is somewhat frustrating, because we almost never see the couple together and get to feel the love they say they have for each other. However, by hearing first Jamie and then Cathy give their sides of the story, we are painfully aware, long before they realize it themselves, just how unsuited they were from the start.

Calarco's direction is deft and sensitive. Michael Fagin's attractive set consists of a background onto which snapshots appropriate to each song are presented. The other set element, at the beginning of the show, is a large, half-picture frame. When Jamie proposes marriage, the half swings open to form a full frame, but in a graphic illustration of just how doomed it all is, within minutes the frame swings back to half position, where it remains.


Contact theater critic Douglas J. Keating at 215-854-5609 or


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The Last Five Years