Jan. 2, 2004, 12:02PM

Two in love, then out of love

Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle

Boy-meets-girl may be the oldest story in musical theater, but Tony-winning composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown puts a fresh spin on it in The Last Five Years. The critically acclaimed off-Broadway musical will make its Houston premiere Wednesday at Theater LaB Houston.

Intimate and contemporary, the two-character show depicts the five-year relationship of actress Cathy and writer Jamie, from two perspectives. In their alternating numbers, Jamie tells the story from first meeting through wedding to ultimate breakup, and Cathy recalls the affair in reverse, from bittersweet ending back to the beginning. The two come together at the show's center, depicting the joyous moments of proposal and wedding.

Brown, who won a "best score" Tony for his ambitious Parade, also drew critical plaudits with The Last Five Years . Newsday praised the score's "unpredictably heartfelt insights, energized by a seductive, rhythmic drive." The show won 2002 Drama Desk Awards for outstanding music and lyrics.

"It engages all the complicated issues of falling in and out of love," director Ed Muth says. "It offers both the male and female point of view of a relationship that's loving and sexy, but also challenging and profound. It lets the audience inside their hearts."

With Jamie an aspiring novelist and Cathy a struggling actress, career concerns impinge upon their relationship.

"It's about their need to compete and succeed," Muth says, "while still finding time for love and romance. What happens when their careers bleeds back into the affair. The show is saying that love and marriage take a lot of hard work."

Keith Caldwell, who plays Jamie, is "thrilled" to be singing Brown's score.

"It's some of the finest music I've heard," Caldwell says. "It blends Broadway with contemporary pop and rock influences in a sophisticated, witty way."

Besides its fresh angle on the love story, Caldwell sees another reason for the show's his-and-hers structure.

"It reflects the different ways men and women view relationships," Caldwell says. "Men tend to just move on, even if they keep repeating the same mistakes. Women seem more likely to look back and reflect upon what happened."

The show is particularly meaningful to Joanne Bonasso, who plays Cathy.

"That's because my husband and I will be celebrating our fifth wedding anniversary this week," Bonasso says. "It's not our last five years, though!"

Yet while Cathy and Jamie go their separate ways, Bonasso still relates to their story.

"It's not so much focusing on what went wrong. It's showing the journey of these two bright young people, the extreme highs and lows of being in love, and how each is changed by the other person. It's saying the process of love is unpredictable. That's why it's so damned exciting -- and difficult, sometimes."

As an actress, Bonasso says she "totally relates" to Cathy's wry material describing the struggles of her career.

But mostly, Bonasso loves singing Brown's songs.

"The songs combine the best qualities of Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber. I think it's just beautiful writing, especially the wedding scene, which is my favorite part. It's a powerful, funny, touching show that lets you laugh and cry."

The Last Five Years opens at 8 p.m. Wednesday and will play at 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays through Feb. 14, with an additional show at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 25, at Theater LaB, 1706 Alamo. For tickets, call 713-868-7516.

The Last Five Years