New York Newsday
Linda Winer

HE IS BOYISH, she is womanly. He is young and Jewish. She is young and conspicuously not. He becomes a bestselling novelist with his first book. She may never have the oomph to make it as a musical-theater star.

And yet, they make beautiful – or at least compulsively enjoyable – music together. Of course, if pressed, they would have different ideas about just how "together" they ever were.

They are Jamie and Cathy in "The Last 5 Years," the musical shaggy-marriage story that opened last night at the Minetta Lane Theatre after a head-turning run at Chicago’s Northlight Theatre. Jason Robert Brown, who won his 1999 Tony Award for his first Broadway musical, "Parade," is said to be resistant to suggestions that this two-character song cycle is autobiographical. … a little something about a threatened lawsuit by an understandably annoyed ex-wife.

Whatever the inspiration, the show – bizarrely clocked in the program as running "83 minutes" – seems to move smartly along on the wicked specificity of truth. Unlike his darkly ambitious score for the social-message "Parade," commissioned by no less a deity than Harold Prince, this one is a collection of 14 songs that tell an intimate story. The style is theater-pop pastiche, informed by unpredictably heartfelt insights and energized by a seductive, rhythmic drive, supplied by Brown himself at the piano as he conducts the expressive, low-rumbling strings of a six-piece orchestra.

Brown is terrific at writing love without the cornball, a quality he makes both poignant and ironic here by having Cathy’s songs start at the end of the marriage, while Jamie begins at the smitten beginning. They sing only one duet, as they marry in the loving middle. Otherwise, each is solo, moving past one another on the brutal grace of a well-used turntable.

Daisy Prince, who originally brought Brown to the attention of her father, directs with the sure hand and thrill-seeking confidence of a sensibility soul mate. Beowulf Doritt’s set is a simple yet striking disk, a bird’s-eye view of an uninhabited garden wedding onto which Christine Binder’s lights change with the seasons.

Then there are Jamie and Cathy, who cry out for the particularity of their familiar urban story.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine either of them as anyone but the ones created by Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott – though he was not in the Chicago cast. Butz, a "Rent" original and one of the few talents left standing after last season’s "Thou Shalt Not," gives Jamie the quick surprise of baby-faced self-interest. Scott, so witty as Amneris in Disney’s "Aida," brings a bittersweet, open-throated immediacy to Cathy, an insecure, needy character who, with less finesse, could easily be turned into an emotional doormat.

But Brown isn’t going to let that happen. Cathy begins with a "Still Hurting" song and entertains the attractions of a life lived through her man. All the baggage, however, is dropped in a spectacular number, "Climbing Uphill," an interior monologue – with, of all quirky things, an Irish jig rhythm – that just might do for the audition process and complex female resilience what Stephen Sondheim did for bridal panic in "Company."

Butz gets to begin with Jamie’s New York sense of humor showing, as he says hello to his "shiksa goddess" and so long to Friday night dinners with "every Shapiro in Washington Heights." The challenge here is to keep Jamie’s betrayal from being hateful as he refuses to feel guilty for his success and proclaims, "I will not fail so you can be comfortable; I will not lose because you can’t win."

So here is a real modern falling in- and-out of love musical, a romance about careers, infused with soft-pop ballads, a faux Jewish folk song for overachievers at Christmas, and an irresistible, tempted-married-man lament with boogie-woogie insinuations. Finally, Jamie is singing "goodbye forever" and Cathy is singing "goodbye until tomorrow" while the music makes commentary on a schmaltzy waltz. Their last five years may have been painful, but they make us feel much better about the future of musical theater.