The New York Times, Sunday, May 4, 2003
(printed in the Connecticut regional section of the Sunday Times)

As a Marriage Unravels, It's He Sings-She Sings

CATHERINE sings plaintively of her betrayal and loneliness.  Jamie, her husband of five years, has left her.  He is "probably feeling just fine," she sings.  "And I'm still hurting."  The brooding sounds of a cello underscore the melancholy of Catherine's elegy.

Now it's Jamie's turn.

"I've been praying for someone/ I think I could be in love with someone/ Like you," he roars, whooping it up in an up-tempo number that mixes country, folk, rock and everything that makes the first flush of love demand music.  Jamie is on his first date with Catherine.

That's how "The Last Five Years," Jason Robert Brown's two-person, sung-through, 90-minute, intermissionless musical at TheaterWorks in Hartford spins.  Catherine is in the present tense, looking back in bewilderment and delusion.  Jamie begins at the beginning, when "things are moving too fast."

It's isn't so simple throughout, given a jumbled timeline that isn't easy to track.  But alternately moving back and forth fairly sums up the trajectory of a musical about two views of a failed marriage, and no matter the direction, ahead or in reverse, the show winds up standing still.  No reconciliation here.

The stories of Catherine and Jamie are fraught with kvetching.  Their issues – his success, her failure, her needs, his inattentiveness – are mundane.  But Mr. Brown's score and the director Rob Ruggiero's unfailing sense of pace hold up; those years whiz by.   And no matter how uninteresting marital conflicts are, most people can relate to them.  To many, the case of Catherine and Jamie will not be even-handed.  People will indulge in he says-she says arguing all the way home, and that is a good thing.

Mr. Brown, who writes story-telling songs in an all-embracing eclectic mode, is often referred to, more with hope than assurance, as one of the important new voices of today's musical theater.  By extreme contrast, Mr. Brown is currently the musical director of Broadway's "Urban Cowboy," for which he provided the orchestrations and arrangements.  "The Last Five Years" closed Off Broadway just a year ago, after one month of previews and a two-month run, at a loss of almost $1 million.

But the musical is no loser.  With the considerable help of an original cast CD, it has amassed the sort of cult that follows underappreciated musicals.  New York musical theater buffs are trekking to Hartford.  And TheaterWorks, which is driven by a mind of its own and a loyal audience that trusts that mind, is just the home for a musical that marches to its own beat.

Mr. Ruggiero has an affinity and proven talent for the sensibilities of new, non-mainstream composers.  Given a piece that does not call for action or interaction – only once, in the wedding scene midway, do characters and songs intersect – the director achieves remarkable fluidity.

Somehow Joe Cassidy and Sally Wilfert don't just stand there and sing, thought that would be quite enough because they are very fine.  When Ms. Wilfert sings, "We're doing fine" and "We'll end up twice as strong," knowing they're not and they won't, her fear is palpable and very moving.

"The Last Five Years" is at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl Street, Hartford, through May 25.  Box office: (860) 527-7838.

The Last Five Years