Timing is everything. In Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years, the first play in B Street Theatre's 2006-07 season, the Tony Award-winning composer offers us a relationship arc that flashes back, flashes forward, and flashes sideways in a contrived bit of theatricalism that only makes us long for the happy-go-lucky love story of his Parade.
Not a barrel of laughs, and there's not even the benefit of optimism, since the show opens in the present heartbreak of Catherine (Jessica Rush) and works backward. So it's anticlimactic to see her husband, Jamie (Eric Anderson) -- whose perspective is presented in a traditional forward-moving track -- get amped up about this great new girl he's met ("Shiksa Goddess"). The whole thing is doomed from the get-go, and Brown's gift for clever lyrics (the musical is essentially sung-through) offers little solace for the romantically inclined.
The show's shortcomings aside, director Michael Stevenson's staging is largely well-performed. The intimacy of the one-act, two-person musical is a perfect fit for B Street's auxiliary space, with no amplification needed for either the actors or the excellent acoustic quartet under the direction of Chris Schlagel. This natural presentation is a real treat, as is the voice of Rush, whose emotional renderings tug at the heartstrings from the opening bars of "Still Hurting." Her Catherine, a struggling actress, hits all the highs and lows of a sometimes-working performer who has the misfortune of hooking up with another creative type, a novelist, whose luck seems limitless.
To make it worse, Anderson's Jamie is a bit me-centric -- a personality trait not completely lost on Catherine. It's telling when he says to her, "I'm lucky to be in love with you," rather than "I'm lucky you're in love with me." Her insecurity, his success, and their professional disconnect don't add up to longevity. Just five years. (They meet for their only duet, the beautiful "The Next Ten Minutes," halfway through the show.)
Anderson, a little vocally strained at times, isn't the ideal match for Rush. Maybe it's because he looks 10 to 15 years older than the 23- to 28-years-old his character is described as being. Thinning hair, an unhip wardrobe (what was the costume designer thinking?), and a kind of been-there-done-that attitude is not what I'm picturing for an up-and-coming New York writer. Scenic designer Ron Madonia and lighting designer Sara Newell are more on top of their choices, and it's a pleasure to see this show in such an intimate setting, even when things aren't perfect.
The Last Five Years runs through Sept. 10 at B Street Theatre in Sacramento, Calif.