The New York Times
Ben Brantley

Ambition writhes to a gospel beat in "The Last Five Years," Jason Robert Brown’s slim, elegiac new musical at the Minetta Lane Theater. For Jamie, a novelist on the threshold of fame, a first taste of success has him singing like a revivalist preacher. The words may express doubts, but the tempo is as affirmative as the "Hallelujah Chorus." Jamie has boarded an express train to his own custom-made heaven.

This double-edged song of thanksgiving, "Moving Too Fast," pulses with the dangerous, irresistible giddiness that comes from prayers answered early in life. And if the number has an authentic ring rarely evident in the rest of the show, well, that makes sense.

The song is being performed, after all, by Norbert Leo Butz, the fast- rising young star who walked away last fall with the dreary Broadway musical "Thou Shalt Not." And the song’s writer, Mr. Brown, had won a Tony (for "Parade" in 1999) before he was 30. He is today often spoken of as a leading member of a new generation of composers who embody high hopes for the American musical.

In other words these are two fellows who know where they’re coming from. Jamie belts out words like "Sonny Mehta" and "The Atlantic Monthly" with the reverence with which Tony, the hero in "West Side Story," sang another proper name, "Maria," and it’s hard not to grin and wince in recognition. Messrs. Butz and Brown have captured the delicious, embarrassing energy of being young, gifted and meteoric in New York City.

That such energy, unchecked, takes its toll is the larger subject of "The Last Five Years," which opened last night under the direction of Daisy Prince. The two-character, sung-through show, produced last year by the Northlight Theater Company in Skokie, Ill., is an epitaph for the failed five-year marriage of Jamie and Cathy (Sherie Rene Scott), an actress whose career lags far behind her husband’s.

Unfortunately, as a post-mortem of a relationship, "Five Years" is pretty tedious. Mr. Brown doesn’t bring nearly the same conviction to Jamie’s songs of adoration for Cathy that he does to Jamie’s songs of adoration for Jamie. This may be intentional. But what emerges is a portrait of two people who never really seemed to be together at all. This makes it awfully hard to mourn their demise as a couple.

The feeling of individual isolation is enhanced by the structure and staging. "Five Years" has been written as a he-says, she-says series of solos, arranged in scrambled chronology that contrasts promising beginnings with grim conclusions.

When the performers share the stage, the back of one is usually to the audience. In the song in which Jamie proposes to Cathy in a boat in Central Park, he is by himself. (She sings her responses later, also alone in the boat.) These people, it seems, are so buried in themselves that true connection is impossible.

Cathy is a moping doormat of a wife who can’t understand why her Jewish intellectual husband is so remote. Jamie is a strutting egomaniac who has found a trophy in his "shiksa goddess" but wishes she had more professional grit. "Don’t you think that now’s a good time to be the ambitious freak you are?" he asks on one of the rare occasions when he focuses on her.

The show’s obsessive awareness of time is its most intriguing quality. Mr. Brown suggests, through the very tone and tempos of his music, that Cathy and Jamie live at different speeds, doomed by some romantic theory of relativity.

The idea is also reflected in Ms. Prince’s cleanly geometric direction. (The performers’ paths only rarely intersect.) Beowulf Borrit’s elegant de Chiricoesque setting, which suggests gravity gone haywire, conveys a matching sense of time out of joint.

Mr. Brown’s lyrics only rarely achieve corresponding depth. The words scan gracefully, but they are also deliberately prosey, in contrast to the lush arrangements for the superb six-piece band.

There’s a certain wit in this disparity. It suggests what it might be like to have swooning violins accompany your most pedestrian activities, like taking out the garbage. And Mr. Brown confirms his sparkling facility as a composer, fluidly mixing diverse styles. They range from waltzes to rhythm and blues, from Sondheimesque urbanity to a clever "Chorus Line"-like audition piece for Cathy.

Ms. Scott, who played the fashionista princess in the Disney "Aida," brings humor and sincerity as well as a powerhouse voice to her interpretation. But she has too much glamour-girl oomph to be credible as the unconfident Cathy. (You get the feeling that in a connubial clinch she might smother the wiry Mr. Butz.)

Not that Cathy, as written, would ever be too compelling. Her masochistic ballads about the man who is getting away aren’t so different from a top-40 pop song by, say, Jewel. Jamie has a few similar generically whiny numbers, but he also gets the perkier odes to ambition.

The production is truly blessed in Mr. Butz, whose gleaming vitality and multicolored voice wins a lot of good will for an essentially unattractive character. And he gives a stirring interpretation of the show’s most completely realized ballad, "Nobody Needs to Know," in which Jamie tries to rationalize an extramarital affair.

Music, words and performance meld into a spectrum of clashing emotions in this song, which comes toward the show’s end: guilt, resentment, sorrow, lust, anger. The combination truly stings, and for just that moment, you believe in the doomed marriage in "The Last Five Years." It is, alas, a little late in the evening to start feeling that way.