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Writer-composer Jason Robert Brown's self-imposed challenge—to trace a five-year romance from start to finish through an 80-minute cycle of 15 songs—is an exciting concept. His finished product, a few numbers notwithstanding, is unfortunately a blend of bland lyrics and attractive but unremarkable music, some of which is too reminiscent of other composers' work. Although a strong cast could elevate Brown's two-person musical, this production, directed adequately by Calvin Remsberg, suffers significantly because of a poor performance by one of its leads.

The plot is sung chronologically by the man, in reverse order by the woman. Jamie (Stef Tovar), a young novelist on the way up in his career, sings his songs from the couple's meeting till their goodbye. Cathy (Tricia Small), a struggling actor, tells the story backward from their breakup. Only during the marriage song, "The Next 10 Minutes," do they sing a duet.

The opening strains of the first number, "I'm Still Hurting," are attractive and lush. But quickly they are overpowered by Brown's overly simplistic lyrics, almost all of which follow an obvious rhyming pattern, such as, "Jamie is over and Jamie is gone/Jamie's decided it's time to move on/Jamie has new dreams he's building upon." But, worse than the words, is how Small delivers them. Perhaps it was an extremely off night for her, because there is no other explanation for how a producing-directing team would cast a performer incapable of hitting or sustaining almost any notes in her upper range. Small's voice cracked or unpleasantly warbled during every song. And although Tovar sang well, neither he nor Small added much through their mannered acting performances. The music, however, is performed well by pianist Tom Griffin, who conducts a five-string ensemble.

Pieces of The Last Five Years, handled by a talented singer, might fit nicely into a cabaret show, but there is too much forgettable material from which to piece together a musical.

"The Last Five Years," presented by Red Horse Theatricals in association with the El Portal Theatre and Meredith Scott Lynn at the El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Mar. 10-Apr. 3. $30. (818) 723-0353

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