Jason Robert Brown’s 2002 song cycle “The Last Five Years,” about a young couple’s romantic flameout, was written in the heat of divorce, and it shows. It hurtles with energy: The story-rich songs soar with youthful expectation and cut with the fury of thwarted desires.
No wonder the 90-minute, two-character piece has endured over the past decade, even after a chilly response to the New York premiere led Brown to renounce the city and head for Los Angeles. “The Last Five Years” is even enjoying a remarkable surge: Brown is directing an off-Broadway revival. A film featuring Anna Kendrick and “Smash” star Jeremy Jordan is in the works. And an affecting new production, winningly performed by James Gardiner and Erin Weaver, has just popped up at Arlington’s Signature Theatre.
“Popped up” really is the phrase, because “The Last Five Years” is a substitute for Beth Henley’s previously announced “Crimes of the Heart,” which fell apart at the last minute. Call the result beautifully composed, not only because it looks and sounds terrific, but also because the drama is so thoroughly embedded in Brown’s adventurous score.
The narrative hook is that Jamie, a fast-rising young novelist, and Cathy, the hapless singer-actress who loves him, both tell the story while moving in different directions. He starts at the exciting beginning, and she begins at the bitter end. Their songs are mostly solos; they only meet in the happy middle, as they get married.
Daniel Conway’s set is ingenious, featuring a soaring staff of music that springs out of Jamie’s writing desk. It’s adorned with clocks, and the gorgeous sloping spiral hovering above the stage suggests tension. Who’s moving up? Who’s going down?
If “The Last Five Years” is a chronicle of love that never really clicks, it’s also intensely about show-biz success (his) and failure (hers). Jamie’s early songs are borderline frantic as this 23-year-old Jewish guy gets smitten by Cathy (“Shiksa Goddess”) and enjoys early breaks in the literary scene (“Moving Too Fast”).
Jamie’s appetite is wolfish, and if Gardiner pushes a little too hard here, it’s brief. His innate charm comes in handy, keeping the character palatable as Jamie’s rough edges take over. It’s especially fascinating to watch Gardiner’s vaudeville gene (a good thing to have) slowly yield to subtler dramatic instincts in the long-relationship parable “The Schmuel Song.”
Weaver, meanwhile, has little to do early but brood. It’s during the first few numbers that you worry whether director Aaron Posner, better known for his takes on Shakespeare (his dusty, western “The Taming of the Shrew” at the Folger Theatre took top honors at the Helen Hayes Awards on Monday night), will find an answer for how to stage a musical that’s really almost a concert. Having the actors stroll moodily or hop excitedly on the sparse furniture are early tactics.
But Weaver is wonderfully pathetic and funny as Cathy sings about the soul-stifling grind of summer stock, and she deepens Cathy’s confusion shrewdly and wittily in a revealing audition sequence.
Both characters have abrasive qualities — it’s a strength of Brown’s writing — yet Weaver and Gardiner (who ages convincingly) are appealing enough to keep your rooting interest high.
The singing has to be good, and it is. Brown’s score could be a poster child of latter-day musical-theater writing — not the kind that comes from pop stars or satires, but from stage-bred composers. It’s personable and accessible (Brown’s work is a staple of the cabaret and concert scene), with catchy beats and tricky rhythms, plaintive ballads and tangled emotional anthems.
Is “chamber pop” a term? Music director William Yanesh’s six-person orchestra features piano, guitar and bass, plus two cellos and a violin. Signature is the only theater in town that could do this score justice, and Matt Rowe’s feather-light sound design renders the amplification almost undetectable. Such all-around skillful work makes the no-frills “The Last Five Years” worth seeing, and worth a good, close listen.
Written and composed by Jason Robert Brown. Directed by Aaron Posner. Costumes, Kathleen Geldard; lighting design, Andrew F. Griffin. About 90 minutes. Through April 28 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Call 703-820-9771 or go to www.signature-theatre.org.