‘The Last Five Years’ at Long Wharf: Breaking up a marriage is hard to do

Divorce is talked about so matter-of-factly these days that it’s easy to lose sight of the pain that couples go through during the disintegration of a marriage. Jason Robert Brown’s “The Last Five Years” at Long Wharf Theatre is mostly a sung-through musical that captures the heartache Cathy and Jamie go through in dissolving their marriage vows.

The brilliant lyrics that are sung solo by each actor are quite telling in why the split up happens. Cathy tells her version by going backwards from their final goodbye kiss to their initial meeting, while Jamie tells his side of the story from the first kiss to the final goodbye. That the playwright moves the action by having each actor move in opposite directions is certainly symbolic of the lives these two characters lead and is certainly a clever way to present the story, but it can be somewhat confusing if one doesn’t know this ahead of time.

The only problem with this play was that it didn’t move me emotionally. There’s something missing that prevents one from feeling sad enough to hold back tears nor is the production powerful enough to make one feel as though this break-up is hard to swallow.

Long Wharf’s Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein directs the production beautifully with musicians stationed high above the stage. James Sampliner provides the musical direction, which flows as smoothly, seamlessly, and directly as an electrical current.

Katie Rose Clarke, who played Glinda in “Wicked” on Broadway, plays Cathy, the wannabe great actress. Clarke is dynamite with spunk and high energy to spare. She sings out one great solo after another. You want to care for this character, who tries so hard and fails to make it to the big time. You also want to care because Clarke puts so much into it.

The same is true for Adam Halpin, who plays Jamie. Halpin, from the tour of “Rent,” sings and acts with gusto as his character makes his way to the star of the publishing world. Through no fault of the performer, the character seems incomplete.

Again, the shortcomings of the play are disappointing, but that doesn’t mean this production is anything but seriously entertaining. The highlights of the show are the wonderful lyrics. When Cathy sings of her struggles while auditioning for a part, and while Jamie jumps on board Cloud Nine with the success of his first novel, the lyrics tell the story. Herein lies the heart of the problem; the characters don’t really come to life. They are merely exquisite vehicles for the lyrics.

Overall, this is definitely worth seeing. The Long Wharf production is beautifully presented and the two actors are quite talented. The production plays through June 1. Box office: 203-787-4282.