- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 19, 2005

In an ideal universe, Tracy Lynn Olivera would be the toast of Broadway and Jane Pesci-Townsend would be Manhattan’s reigning cabaret queen, entertaining her subjects at the Cafe Carlyle or the Rainbow Room.

The Big Apple’s loss is Washington’s gain, as the talented women have teamed up for the intimate, affecting musical “The Last Five Years,” with Miss Olivera in the lead and Miss Pesci-Townsend stepping behind the curtain to perform expert directing duties.

Speaking of ideal worlds — or unfairness, if you are a glass half-empty/half-full sort of person — writer and composer Jason Robert Brown also deserves more than cult status. As the creator of the 1999 Tony Award-winning musical “Parade” and the off-Broadway wonder “Songs for a New World,” he combines bracing emotional honesty, humor and poetry in his theatrical works.

In “The Last Five Years,” Mr. Brown tackles the arc of a relationship with poignancy and electrifying truth.

Catherine (Miss Olivera) is an aspiring actress who falls in love with Jamie (Mark Bush), a wunderkind writer who has a hit novel by the age of 23. They tell their version of what happened from two angles — Catherine starts at the end of the relationship and works back to their giddy first kiss, while Jamie begins at their initial meeting and winds up at the conflicted breakup of their marriage.

The couple relates their story through song, only pairing once — at their wedding, during the impassioned duet, “A Miracle Would Happen/When You Come Home to Me.” Otherwise, the musical is a searing “he said/she said,” as the woman moves from devastated wife back through time to the hopeful girlfriend and the man unravels from an exultant wooer to a spent husband.

The conceit is an inspired one, lending a bittersweet air to a musical that could have been a conventional dissection of a modern relationship and marriage.

Perhaps this is a tribute to Miss Olivera’s maturity and intelligence as a performer, but the deck is stacked from the beginning. She brings such taste and adroit selectiveness to the role of Catherine that you wonder “what is she doing with a schmuck like Jamie who seems to have an incorrigible case of Peter Pan Syndrome and can’t keep his pants on?” As one of the songs says, “I can do better than that.”

Mr. Bush, while engaging, goes way over to the puckish and boyish side of Jamie, not showing us any shadings until nearly the end, when he delivers “If I Didn’t Believe In You,” a powerful meditation on unconditional love and support. However, it almost arrives too late for us to feel anything but “good riddance,” especially since the next time you see Jamie he is in bed with another woman and telling her to keep it all a secret in the ballad “Nobody Needs to Know,” which combines sexual bliss with regret.

Miss Pesci-Townsend, on the other hand, tries to balance the two sides of the story by providing an elegant neutral ground in which the characters hash it out. Her scenery design puts you in mind of a swank cocktail lounge swathed in gray and black, with the performers up front and a top-drawer five-piece orchestra (Howard Breitbart, piano; JiHea Choi, cello; Edward Lewis-Smith, guitar; Jeff Newberger, violin; Jean Finstad III, bass) holding court in the back. The effect is understated and classy, a good choice given the emotional fireworks of Mr. Brown’s music and lyrics.

You don’t emerge from “The Last Five Years” feeling all dewy-eyed and optimistic about romance. The chamber musical goes deeper than that, showing us that love would not be nearly as rich without loss.

***1/2

WHAT: “The Last Five Years,” written and composed by Jason Robert Brown

WHERE: MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through July 24.

TICKETS: $32 to $38

PHONE: 800/494-8497

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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