Review: The Last Five Years
|You'll want to spend more than just the next ten minutes with Adam Kantor and Betsy Wolfe in The Last Five Years.|
The original production of Jason Robert Brown’s semi-autobiographical musical The Last Five Years only ran for two months Off-Broadway, but thanks to a beloved cast album featuring Norbert Leo Butz and Sherrie Renee Scott the show has gone on to achieve genuine cult status. But despite hundreds of college and regional productions during the eleven years since its premiere, the current Second Stage Theatre revival marks this chamber musical’s first return New York City engagement, and the first chance many fans (myself included) have had to actually see the show live. Those myriad fans, and anyone else with an appreciation for serious musical dramas, will be happy to know that this revival not only meets but at times even exceeds the lofty expectations brought on by its vaunted reputation.
A high concept affair based in part on Brown’s failed first marriage, The Last Five Years chronicles the relationship of aspiring young actress Cathy Hyatt and writing wunderkind Jamie Wellerstein. The twist is that while Jamie’s story unfolds in chronological order, Cathy’s tale is told in reverse, beginning with the couple’s divorce and ending on the night of their first date. While an interesting idea, this approach means the actors in this two person chamber musical almost never interact, save during their wedding day at the show’s midpoint. The concept also requires the audience to track the two stories separately and figure out how they overlap as the evening progresses. Although an ultimately rewarding gimmick, the time jumping narrative does keep the audience from fully engaging with the characters for the first twenty or so of the show’s intermissionless ninety minutes.
Thankfully, whatever clunkiness is caused by the show’s narrative structure is more than compensated for by its lushly romantic score. Since first bursting onto the scene in the mid-nineties with Songs for a New World, Brown has been routinely hailed as one of the most sophisticated composers of his generation. The Last Five Years is his most unabashedly beautiful score to date, a perfect melding of pop-influenced character songs and gut-wrenching ballads. Vocally demanding and richly textured, Brown’s music rewards repeated listening thanks to its subtle motifs and complex, often surprising lyrics which speak volumes about the characters singing them. Brown has also ingeniously orchestrated the piece with a fullness that belies the six person pit’s small size, making judicious use of strings to add to the music’s romantic flair.
Brown’s music is notoriously difficult to sing, and finding two young performers with the vocal ability and emotional maturity to bring this score to life is one of the primary challenges facing any proposed production. For this incarnation, Brown – who also assumes directing duties – has found the exceedingly talented Betsy Wolfe and Adam Kantor to embody Cathy and Jamie, respectively.
Wolfe in particular is simply sensational, immediately banishing any memories of Sherrie Renee Scott’s performance (no small task) and making Cathy entirely her own. With an emotional vulnerability that pulls the audience in, she creates a wholly sympathetic portrayal of a not entirely likable woman, as Cathy’s crushing self-doubt and neurotic need for attention are at least partially to blame for her marriage’s eventual collapse. Wolfe starts the show on a high note with a superbly acted “Still Hurting” and proceeds to improve from there, and as Cathy regresses to happier times Wolfe gets to display her finely tuned skills as a comedienne. She turns Brown’s purposefully ridiculous “A Summer in Ohio” into comedic gold, and her pitch-perfect send up of every bad audition habit during “Climbing Uphill” will be especially appreciated by anyone unlucky enough to experience such a thing in person. The actress sings like a dream, tenderly caressing her notes or belting them to the rafters as the score dictates. It is a star-making performance, and I expect Wolfe to become one of the city’s most in-demand musical actresses following her work here.
Kantor is slightly more problematic as Jamie, at least initially. His first song, “Shiksa Goddess,” is surprisingly subdued both vocally and emotionally considering the song is about the unequaled thrill of a stellar first date. But as the show progresses Kantor becomes steadily more effective, and by the time he sings his final farewell to Cathy your heart breaks with his. Credit must be given to Brown for writing Jamie – obviously an author analogue – as a real person and not a faultless saint, and Kantor’s performance makes it clear that Jamie hates himself as much as anyone for the mistakes he makes, a trait most readily illustrated during his particularly forlorn rendition of “Nobody Needs to Know.” Kantor also transforms “The Schmuel Song,” which has always seemed overlong and unnecessary on the cast recording, into one of the most surprisingly touching moments of the show, displaying a gift for emotional clarity and a charming sensitivity that goes a long way towards explaining why Cathy puts up with Jamie’s ever-burgeoning ego.
Brown’s staging of the work is excellent, emphasizing clarity and emotional honesty over any theatrical trickery. The amount of visual interest Brown derives from what is essential an uninterrupted succession of solos is astounding, and with each scene transition it is immediately clear both where and when the characters are in their journey. Brown has permitted his actors to take slight liberties with the rhythm and tempo of the music, and while this may initially throw fans of the cast recording for a loop, almost every change brings with it greater illumination of the show’s lyrics and the psychological state of its characters. Set designer Derek McLane and costumer Emily Rebholz provide minimalistic but evocative designs in purples and blues, all gorgeously lit by Jeff Croiter’s rich lighting design.
Anyone interested in The Last Five Years should run, not walk, to purchase their tickets to this deeply moving Off-Broadway revival. This is a definitive production of Brown’s deeply personal work, representing the show as he intended it to be and executed with the utmost professionalism by all involved. Kantor and Wolfe are promising young talents poised for great things, and this could be the last chance to see them in such an intimate setting. Like Sondheim before him, Brown has pushed the boundaries of what the contemporary musical can be, creating an artistic triumph that demands to be seen by all.