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'The Last Five Years' review: Smart songs

Adam Kantor and Betsy Wolfe in "The Last

Adam Kantor and Betsy Wolfe in "The Last Five Years" in New York. Credit: Joan Marcus

When "The Last Five Years" had its New York premiere downtown in 2002, it was impossible to imagine anyone but Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott in Jason Robert Brown's two-character musical about falling in and out of love in a two-career marriage.

Of course, the offbeat hit went on without them to be a favorite in theaters and audition halls around the country for years. The song cycle -- basically a shaggy-marriage story told from two perspectives -- has returned for its first local revival before Richard

LaGravenese ("Beautiful Creatures") begins shooting the movie this summer starring Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick.

The production, directed this time by the composer-author himself, remains an engaging chamber musical infused with intimate, emotionally perceptive, nonstop songs in which the woman tells their story backward in time from the breakup and the guy tells his side from the smitten beginning. They sing together only when their viewpoints intersect at the wedding.

For all the cleverness of the concept and Brown's psychologically merciless songs, however, this production never makes the case that these two could ever have made it. There is little chemistry in the mismatch of Adam Kantor as Jamie, the Jewish writer who becomes a star with his first novel, and Betsy Wolfe as Cathy, his "shiksa goddess" whose acting career never takes off.

Wolfe has a terrific technique and comic timing, but this Cathy seems too clingy and insecure to have ever been more than an emotional doormat. Kantor makes the most of Jamie's wittier songs, but the character -- who brutally admits "I will not lose because you can't win" -- feels small and distant from the start.

Without magnetism between them, we are left with a structural gimmick and a concert of Brown's heady, enjoyable songs. Brown, who won a 1999 Tony for his first Broadway musical, the darkly ambitious "Parade," is lighter but no less intelligent in this rich pastiche of classical strings, jazz, blues and theater-pop pastiche.

An excellent pianist and string orchestra are evocatively perched on what look like staggered shelves on the back wall, and New York life appears as if by magic inside hanging windows. But finally, when this Jamie gets to the end of the story singing "goodbye forever" while Cathy is just starting it with "goodbye until tomorrow," nothing hurts enough.

WHAT "The Last Five Years"

WHERE Second Stage Theatre, 305 W. 43rd St.

INFO $69-$94; 212-246-4422;

BOTTOM LINE Clever concept, smart songs, middling revival.

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