In tuneful 'Five Years,' timing is everything
By Ed Siegel, Globe Staff

Love makes the world go round, clockwise and counterclockwise, in Jason Robert Brown's musical "The Last Five Years," which is based not-so-loosely on his own failed marriage. Chronicling the death of love is fairly upbeat territory for Brown. "Parade," which won him the 1999 Tony Award for best new score, was about the lynching of Leo Frank.

"The Last Five Years" is an advancement in other ways. Brown's musical vocabulary is far more impressive here. Each song begins almost conversationally but evolves into something more melodic. Bursts of jazz, light rock, and even klezmer move the story into solid musical terrain. The concept, perhaps too high a concept, behind "The Last Five Years" lies in its narrative. The musical begins with Cathy lamenting the end of the relationship in "Still Hurting" while Jamie is ecstatic about its beginning in "Shiksa Goddess." He moves forward in time, she moves backward, and they meet somewhere near the middle of the 90-minute one-act.

To his credit, Brown does not stack the deck in Jamie's favor, even though his former wife had threatened to sue over an earlier version of the musical. Both characters have their faults. Jamie puts his writing career ahead of the marriage; Cathy, a struggling actress, becomes overly jealous of his success.

But Cathy's cause is furthered in this production by Becca Ayers, the Sally Bowles of the great Barrington Stage Company production of "Cabaret." Her voice has grown in personality and her stage presence in poise since her sizzling 1997 performances at the Hasty Pudding Theatre. Tally Sessions as Jamie is handicapped by an overly nebbishy optimism at the beginning of the show, although there's more depth to his singing as the relationship starts to sink.

Cathy, though, has the better solos (and, by far, the better clothes). Ayers saves this marriage musically even if it couldn't be saved in reality. Her soulful sadness at the beginning of the show and her exuberance at the end carry the day. "The Last Five Years" is one of the more tuneful scores by the current generation of young composers. Brown's ability to merge show music and other idioms serves him well here. His lyrics are also solid. Without being overly flashy and rarely sounding forced, they do a fine job of moving the story forward.

Yet, I can't say I was terribly moved by the show or feel like hearing the score again any time soon. The time-switching works in the end, but it's terribly confusing to audience members (to judge from overheard comments) who don't realize what Brown was up to. Even if you do, it starts the show off on an overly cerebral plane.

Director Eric Engel expertly maneuvers the duo around Susan Zeeman Rogers's smart, round set design. A piece of the stage, which serves basically as the apartment, is cut out to simulate a pier. But like the show, the set is more inventive than inviting. Except for Ayers's singing, everything about "The Last Five Years" could use a little more personality.

("The Last Five Years"; Musical in one act, by Jason Robert Brown; At the Boston Center for the Arts, through Feb. 29; 617-426-2787.)

The Last Five Years