Two-thirds of the way through The Last Five Years, the 80-minute, no-intermission musical that is receiving its local premiere in the Emerson Studio Theatre by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, something highly unusual begins to happen: Thought becomes palpable. You can actually feel the audience thinking.
They're thinking about Jamie, the college student whose meteoric rise as a novelist sours his budding relationship with Kathy, a struggling young actress for whom success is more elusive. The audience is fervently asking why Jamie is so self-consumed and why Kathy can't control her wasteful insecurities. "No one will understand," Jamie sings as the show begins its decrescendo. But judging from the energy that emanated from the intensely involved opening-night audience, this is a story that too many people understand only too well.
All writers draw on personal experiences, but The Last Five Years somehow goes deeper than that. For Jason Robert Brown, creating this two-character musical provided a purging of his own past, a catharsis for the missteps in his own marriage. Sure, there's been some dissembling (Jamie is an author, not a composer), but there's no self-indulgence here, no self-justification. On the contrary, the piece is artful. The glorious score -- tender, sad, sensitive, playful and compulsively melodic -- is destined to find a permanent niche in the American musical-theater library.
The evening begins at the end. Kathy is alone with her demons. She blames Jamie for the dissolution of a marriage that, to her way of thinking, died only because he decreed it so. But as soon as Jamie appears, the time frame leaps back five years to their first date, and we meet a young man obsessed with the notion of loving someone like Kathy. For the next fourteen songs (dialogue is incidental; the show is almost completely sung), the plot tinkers with time: Jamie springs forward five years to inevitable carnage; Kathy reverses the story as she works her way back to the hope and promise of that wondrous first date. The only time the two characters intersect is on their wedding day.
Though their doomed story is muddied by false hopes, missed opportunities and imagined slights, the production itself is a miracle of direct simplicity. There's no amplification; instead we hear two pure voices beautifully supported by cello (Natasha Rubinstein), violin (Adrian Walker) and piano (musical director David Geist, who also deserves thanks for the witty orchestrations). Under the consummate direction of John Ruocco, the evening is perfectly calibrated to the intimate studio space.
Ruocco has not rendered a replica of the 1992 off-Broadway edition. From beginning to end (or end to beginning), the entire show has been reconceived; everything here is new. The clean, spare scenic design by Narelle Sissons amounts to little more than a long roll of photo paper (as if to suggest that these musical vignettes are snapshots from the past). The ultimate effect is a staging as innocent and pristine as if the musical were being performed in Eden.
As Jamie, Anthony Holds excels in his most challenging moments. "The Schmuel Song," in which Jamie concocts an elaborate and somewhat dense story in order to give Kathy her Christmas gift, is the show's toughest piece, but Holds attacks it head-on. He's also not put off by the fact that Jamie becomes increasingly unsympathetic as the evening progresses. To the contrary, Holds manages to find an almost serene dignity in self-destruction.
Although Kathy is often garbed in bland beiges, Kate Baldwin brings an array of colors to her wrenching portrayal. An unthinking tug at her sweater, a quick sip of wine, can tell us all we need to know about Kathy's precarious condition. The actress delivers wonderful surprises all night long. (Watch how she holds the final note on the lyric "Then he smiles" long enough to draw an imaginary happy face with her foot.) Baldwin's primly bravura performance is defined by humor, humanity and unfathomable hurt.
It's possible that not everyone will tap into every single thing that's happening onstage. (It's not all that clear, for instance, that in one scene the set's sole chair is being used as a rowboat in Central Park.) But the occasional confusions pass quickly; what lingers is the overwhelming sense that The Last Five Years is a unique and fascinating theater experiment. As staged by the Studio Rep, this minimalist musical is a large-scale triumph.