Associated Press
Michael Kuchwara

Remember when musicals used to bring down the curtain with the hero and his true love proclaiming "I do"? "The Last Five Years," the new mini-musical at off-Broadway’s Minetta Lane Theatre, ends (and begins, for that matter) with "I don’t."

Happily ever after is not in the cards for the young couple examining their relationship in Jason Robert Brown’s brief but bracing musical theater piece that is more song cycle than full-fledged musical. Yet don’t let their lack of marital success–and their general mopiness–prevent you from seeing the show.

The two-character, nearly sung-through musical, less than 90 minutes in length, is brimming with persistent melodies, thoughtful lyrics and a heartfelt story that is compelling despite the preordained nature of its plot.

Jamie is an up-and-coming novelist; Catherine a struggling actress. He’s Jewish and intense; she’s Catholic and insecure. We watch them tell their tales from two different time perspectives. He works from their first meeting to their parting five years later. She does in it in reverse – from the collapse of the marriage to their initial encounter.

Their stories meet in the middle, with a wedding, of course. This coming together is symbolized by designer Beowulf Boritt’s large, white oval setting, suspended above the stage. It’s the surreal floor plan for a ceremony, complete with chairs and flower arrangements seemingly suspended in midair.

The nuptials are also the emotional highlight of the show, summarized in a song called "The Next Ten Minutes." In it, hopes and dreams that the audience knows will quickly fizzle are articulated with surprising tenderness.

Brown’s fine score is diverse, although not as ambitious as the music and lyrics he provided for "Parade" at Lincoln Center several seasons back. The composer is not afraid of writing catchy tunes, and there are several here that stick in the memory, especially a poignant little waltz that snakes through the show’s closing moments. Much of the material is pop-driven and wedded to intelligent lyrics that go a long way toward explaining who these people are.

The production has been blessed with two gifted performers—-Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott. Butz, who scored earlier this season as the doomed husband in "Thou Shalt Not," pulls off something quite tricky here.

The boyish Jamie is not exactly likable, but Butz makes the character’s self-absorption at least understandable. He is particularly adept at carrying off the show’s most theatrical number, "The Schmuel Song," a story told in song that Jamie gives to his wife as a Christmas present.

Scott, last seen as the pampered Egyptian princess in Disney’s "Aida," reconfirms her status as a major musical-theater performer, comfortable belting a pop song or skillfully working her way through more quiet, introspective numbers. In less gifted hands, Catherine could be just a whiner. Scott turns her into a funny, sexy and touching woman.

The actress makes the most of the show’s few humorous moments, particularly an audition sequence when Catherine laments the hard knocks suffered trying to break into show-biz.

Director Daisy Prince has done a good job keeping the time frames separate and the story line clear. "The Last Five Years" may be a small show, but it is a potent reminder of what musicals can be like when they make up their minds to really sing.