Stage: "The Last Five Years"
By Judith Newmark
Post-Dispatch Theater Critic

Over the years, the Studio Theatre at the Repertory Theatre St. Louis has shone with productions of intimate musical theater: shows with more brains than glamour, shows that could easily get lost in a bigger house. Remember the delicious "Tom Foolery," the touching "Falsettos," the extraordinarily beautiful "Songplay"? Now their number grows with "The Last Five Years," John Robert Brown's wistful dissection of the marriage of two young artists. It opened on Friday night.

It's an extremely clever conceit. There are just two characters, Jamie (Anthony Holds), a novelist, and Kathy (Kate Baldwin), an actress. Each is the main character in the other's life. But, though they basically tell the same story - and tell it almost entirely through song - they look at it from drastically different perspectives.

At the opening of the show, Kathy is alone, regretful, looking backwards; she reviews the last five years of her life in reverse chronological order. But Jamie's story starts at the beginning of the same period, when he's brimming with hope for the future of art and love. He moves forward in time. Although Jamie and Kathy are both in the musical throughout, they're together in only one scene, right in the middle.

This unusual structure echoes another play that worked very well in the Studio, Harold Pinter's "Betrayal." And, like "Betrayal," "The Last Five Years" reminds us that shared experiences don't necessarily add up to a shared reality.

Director John Ruocco keeps the show at a conversational pitch, which suits Brown's youthful style. Kathy and Jamie aren't grand, operatic characters; they're young Americans, and Ruocco gives them their vernacular. Jamie, who's Jewish, adores his "Shiksa Goddess"; Kathy revolts from small-town constraints to follow her dreams to New York, confidently asserting that "I Can Do Better Than That."

The downside of their naturalistic reading is that both performers are understated to the point of sporadic inaudibility; the instrumental trio headed by music director David Geist can be a more potent presence than they are. The little Studio Theatre may not be an opera house, but vocalists still need to sing out. We understand that when people express themselves in song, the show isn't supposed to be "real." We might as well enjoy how well they do it.

Nevertheless, Baldwin is a delight, an onstage strawberry sundae who's sweet and fresh and not the first thing you'd think of. Holds keeps Jamie in check, physically tense, a little hesitant, but when he woos Kathy with fiction in a hilarious flight of fancy, "The Schmuel Song," it's not hard to see why she falls. There's nothing more charming than a guy who willingly shares his dreams.

Brown actually seems to know that a bit too well. The play that he both wrote and composed isn't entirely unbiased; it smiles on Jamie, despite his faults, in admiration for his talent and success.

By the end, he's left to mourn his inability to "save" Kathy while she, still naively adrift in the dawn of love, looks at him with stars in her eyes. Maybe Kathy didn't need salvation; maybe she needed a better man. Maybe Brown, and the audience, need a little more respect for her point of view. Nevertheless, Kathy and Jamie make an appealing couple. Their separate stories replace the grand hero-and-villain scheme with something most of us can understand better - love and loss.

"The Last Five Years"

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Where: Emerson Studio Theatre, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

When: Sunday MARCH 28 at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; running through April 18

How much: $27-$40. Rush tickets - $8 for students, $10 for older adults - go on sale 30 minutes before curtain, subject to availability.

More info: 314-968-4925;

The Last Five Years