Jan. 9, 2004,  7:40PM
'Five Years' explores marriage -- warts and all

Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle

It's tempting to think of The Last Five Years as the anti- I Do! I Do!

That oft-produced 1960s classic, Broadway's first two-person musical, follows an Everycouple through 50 years of wedded bliss. Despite bumps, squabbles and extramarital flirtations, love and marriage last a lifetime. Heck, with Mary Martin and Robert Preston as its original stars, how could the marriage -- or the show -- fail?

Flash forward to the new millennium and Theater LaB Houston's affecting area premiere of Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years . This acclaimed 2002 off-Broadway show also is a two-person musical about a relationship. Rising novelist Jamie and struggling actress Cathy meet, co-habit, marry, love each other, break each other's hearts and go their separate ways.

Not that Five Years is anti-marriage or anti-romantic, and nothing against the charming I Do! Yet much as one may enjoy the earlier show's idealized view of marriage, today's showgoers likely will find Brown's brutally honest treatment more recognizable. It's involving and brimming with wit, understanding and bittersweet passion, beautifully sung and truthfully acted by Joanne Bonasso and Keith Caldwell.

Brown, one of the brightest young talents in musical theater today and a Tony winner for his ambitious Parade , here mines a more intimate and contemporary vernacular. Five Years unfolds almost entirely through Brown's fresh and original songs, full of surprising twists, startling insights and unexpected depths.

The impact is intensified by an unusual structure. Cathy and Jamie's alternating musical numbers recount their story from different perspectives: she, moving from the sorrowful end of the marriage backward to the hopeful first meeting; he, moving forward from initial attraction to final farewell. Our knowledge of where this affair is headed, combined with the juxtaposition of the partner's feelings at different stages of the relationship, makes the story more poignant and resonant.

Perhaps the greatest strength is Brown's character writing. Rarely has a musical presented such thoroughly detailed and believable characters as Cathy and Jamie, two individuals with all the engaging qualities and painful shortcomings of real people in a real world. Typically revealing is Jamie's If I Didn't Believe in You , in which he claims he still has hopes for the marriage, but lets slip that he really doesn't believe in Cathy any more: "I will not fail so you can be comfortable, Cathy / I will not lose because you can't win."

Radiant in voice and presence, Bonasso is an ideal Cathy. Wistful, vulnerable, wounded, she also can be hilarious -- chronicling the indignities of summer stock ( Summer in Ohio ) or a disastrous audition ( Climbing Uphill ).

Caldwell roots his vigorous Jamie in soaring vocals. His energy and genial presence help redress the imbalance of the show: that Cathy is much more sympathetic, with Jamie proving monumentally self-centered and a bit of a heel.

Ed Muth's unobtrusive direction quietly underscores each scene's meaning. Musical director/pianist Mary Carol Warwick, cellist Monica Lundeen and violinist Nicholas Len give a sensitive reading of Brown's richly textured music.

In a world in which at least as many marriages end in divorce as in love everlasting, The Last Five Years rings all too true.

The Last Five Years

When: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays through Feb. 14. Also, 6:30 p.m. Jan. 25

Where: Theater LaB Houston, 1706 Alamo

Tickets: $23; 713-868-7516

The Last Five Years