The Setup: Directed by Jimmy Phillips with pace and deftness, and presented by Mildred's Umbrella Theater, The Last Five Years is an ambitious two-character musical that combines some original staging with a narrative device that threatens to sink the ship. It's a love story where boy meets girl, and then, as you well know, complications surface. The largest complication is that the boy tells his story chronologically, and the girl tells hers backwards.
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The Execution: This obscures, but does not hide, the fact that the narrative is singularly devoid of any real ideas. The music is compelling, played by Nicholas Baker, Faith Jones, Steven Jones and Elizabeth Steves, and this quartet, invisible behind a white tent, creates a torrent of energy, melody and dramatic intensity that's not matched by the protagonists visible on stage. Stephen Myers and Sarah Welch are attractive, and Welch has gorgeous hair, but they're asked by the playwright to climb an Everest of a performance by singing the entire tale in separate monologues - they make it only as far as the foothills.
This narrative approach requires consummate charm that is not readily available. Myers has a clear, strong voice. The night I attended, after an unfortunate opening in which his persona seemed too perky, his smile too Ipana, he succeeded in creating an interesting character. Welch, however, seemed vaguely unhappy throughout, and she consistently failed to project her voice, though an occasional line-belting showed that she could. The music overshadowed the lyrics, both in quality and in volume. The set by Kevin Holden was simple but ingenious, with projections adding much to the ambience - these were often more romantic and interesting than the characters.
The Verdict: The playwright/composer, Jason Robert Brown, is to be lauded for his music and praised for his aspirations, though the chronological two-tracking renders it difficult to empathize with characters who almost never meet.
(Through February 26. Mildred's Umbrella at Midtown Arts Center, 3414 LaBranch, 713-231-5015.)