Nice job of love on the rocks
Richard Ouzounian, Toronto Star

The Last Five Years  4 stars
By Jason Robert Brown. Directed by Daryl Cloran. Until May 29 at CanStage Berkeley St. Theatre, 26 Berkeley St. 416-368-3110.    

A toast, please, to Tyley Ross and Blythe Wilson.

These two amazing performers are delivering a breathtaking display of star quality in the CanStage production of The Last Five Years, which opened last night at the Berkeley St. Theatre. Thanks to them, this show constantly touches our hearts. And due to the superlative band led by Marek Norman, it blesses our ears as well.

Our eyes get short-changed, however, and for that, director Daryl Cloran and his design team are to blame, but we'll come to them in time.

Jason Robert Brown based this stimulating show on the break-up of his marriage to an actress whose career was stuck in low gear while he won the 1999 Tony Award for his Broadway musical, Parade. It was only a matter of time before the gap in the careers caused a gap in their lives.

In this version, they're called Cathy and Jamie. She's still a failed actress, but he's now a successful young novelist.  Brown makes us follow their stories separately, starting with her at the end and him at the beginning. Their narrative lines only intersect once, in the sequence relating their proposal and wedding.  Then it's back to two solitudes, until we reach the opposite pole: He's walking out on the end of their marriage, while she's experiencing their ecstatic first date.

It's a tough-tender work and Brown has the skill to deliver the songs that bring it all to life. He can make us laugh, as when Cathy recalls working in a summer theatre "with a gay midget named Karl playing Tevye and Porgy."  But then he can turn around and hit us with a truth as brutal as Jamie's line to Cathy, "I will not lose because you can't win."

The music under these sentiments is tuneful or rhythmic as each moment demands and Norman and his musicians deliver the goods with a fine sense of what's required.

Ross has never given a more joyously open performance. He sings as beautifully as he always does, but this time around, he adds a wonderful sense of physical comedy to the mix, as well as the capacity to display a heart that's slowly but irrevocably splitting in two. And the dazzling Wilson continues to grow more impressive with each appearance. Her voice manages to combine silky vulnerability with brassy assurance. Within one song, she can deliver rage, pathos and humour, tying it all together with that unforgettable smile of hers that lingers in the memory like a melody.

The ingredients are all there for a smash, but what we wind up with is merely very good.  Director Cloran has staged most scenes with a nice mixture of simplicity and invention, but too often he has people delivering songs while looking off to the corners of the stage, which diffuses the energy terribly.  And what he hasn't done is to find a visual or directorial concept that would make the whole piece click as a satisfying whole. Kelly Wolf's set is simply bland and Kevin Lamotte's lighting is unforgivably dull, letting a world of opportunities slip by.

Yet, all in all, you should go to The Last Five Years. It's funny, touching, tuneful and blessed with Tyley Ross and Blythe Wilson - two of the most exciting and attractive stars a musical in this city has ever seen.

You can't ask for much more than that.

The Last Five Years