Likes and Bradshaw two-step past one another in 
    The Last Five Years.
Likes and Bradshaw two-step past one another in The Last Five Years.

Five Years Too Late

The Last Five Years, which played briefly off-Broadway in 2002, chronicles a young couple's romance using two different time lines. Her story starts at the end of their relationship, while his begins at the beginning, on the day they meet. The two stories collide briefly at the couple's wedding, then head off in opposite directions before crashing into the noisy and -- in Actors Theatre's new production -- stylish ending of this troubled, oddball musical.

There are problems with Tony Award-winning composer Jason Robert Brown's sung-through story about Jamie, a college student whose sudden fame as a novelist wrecks his romance with Cathy, a struggling actress for whom success is harder to pin down. Brown tries so hard to make his story universal that it often becomes predictable and dull. Several of the songs are uninteresting, and most of them are forgettable. I liked "I Can Do Better Than That," but no one can sell "The Schmuel Song," in which Jamie spins an elaborate and wildly tedious musical fable as part of Cathy's Christmas gift. Finally, the musical falls victim to its own device: We're often so busy tracking the time line (Has she gotten to the part where he's cheating on her yet? Is he moving forward or back?) that it's hard to focus on the plight of the two young marrieds up on stage.

It doesn't help that both characters become increasingly unsympathetic as the evening progresses. Jamie starts out as a self-consumed prick and winds up a bitter cheat, and Cathy's needy sniveling actually makes her part in the breakup more clear.


The Last Five Years

Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe Street.

Continues through April 20. Call 602-253-6701

While I don't love Brown's script or its characters, I'm crazy about the actors who inhabit them. Both have the pipes to handle intricate solos, and sing beautifully together during the brief period where they inhabit the same moment in time. There's a believable mix of love and tension between them which more than compensates for what's lacking in the story. Jared Bradshaw is a personable Jamie, a guy who is understandably confused by his wife's sometimes upbeat, often gloomy outlook. Stephanie Likes epitomizes that hard-to-capture funny-sad quality with great style. Her performance is all the more impressive when one considers that her character is traveling backward in time and must move slowly and convincingly from sadness to joy.

Desiree Maurer's wonderful set design informs this couple's story even before it begins, but Paul Black's lighting design is the worst ever seen on a Herberger stage. Both performers are lighted throughout with harsh, overhead spots that make them look as if they're appearing in a police interrogation rather than a stage musical.

Director Dennis Courtney stylishly maneuvers his players forward and back through time, adding nice touches like the pace-and-circle bit at the story's end, but ultimately can't save this tough piece of musical malarkey from itself. Although Brown's start-to-finish-to-start device is hard to follow, and Brown's score will never find a permanent niche in the American musical-theater library, it's at very least a pleasant example of how talent can occasionally overcome tricky material.


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