Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review
The Last 5 Years by Elyse Sommer
In short, this little musical fits its marital plot within the timeline of a more up-to-date marriage cycle. While Cathy (Sherie René Scott)and Jamie's (Norbert Leo Butz) story includes extra-marital dalliance, a time immemorial root cause of divorce, it is a very modern day career issue that prompts the unhappily ever after ending -- telescoped by having Cathy tell her story backwards and Jamie beginning with his joyous falling in love with his "ShiksaGoddess." They seem to handle their religious differences all right -- to wit, a Christmas scene in front of a tree topped by a Star of David, but she has a hard time holding onto her self-esteem and being happy as his career as a novelist rolls forward while hers is a nonstarter.
The forward/backward storytelling is something of a gimmick. It's clever but doesn't always work to the show's advantage; in fact, it tends to occasionally confuse Cathy's side of this song cycle (the fourteen scenes are sung through, with the only spoken words being Jamie's reading from his novel during a book promotion event). The same is true of having the two performers on stage alone or, having one sing while the other sits or stands aside. So, don't let the picture I've included here fool you. It illustrates Scott and Butz getting married and is their single duet in the fourteen songs.
These quibbles out of the way, The Last Five Years is an enjoyable, tuneful pastiche. Robert Jason Brown's score is in a pleasing to the ear pop idiom, with the composer-lyricist tipping his hat to Fiddler on the Roof with the terrific "The Schmuel Song" which Butz sings with such verve and charm that you almost believe this Shaigitz could be another Mandy Patinkin.
Of the new young composers working in today's musical theater, Brown is the one who has not sacrificed melody to modernity. His closest resemblance to Sondheim is in his ability to write smart story-telling lyrics that are witty and at times even poetic -- as when Cathy, in her last number sings "I open myself one stitch at a time."
In Ms. Scott and Mr. Butz, Brown has found two performers who can act as well as sing. If you were to keep count, I suppose you would conclude that Butz carries the day both in the acting and vocal department, but Ms. Scott upholds her part. She brings the requisite wistfulness and self-doubt to her role as would-be actress. Her audition for a minor summer stock role, "Climbing Uphill, " is an amusing star turn reminiscent of A Chorus Line.
The singers are accompanied by an excellent small band led by Mr. Brown at the piano. The musicians are tucked away behind Beowulf Boritt's wonderfully metaphorical set piece -- a giant upright circle that looks as if made of stone but is actually a scrim. The circle suggests the floor of an outdoor wedding chapel, with thirteen (an omen of bad luck?) folding chairs at either side of the walkway for the bride and groom, plus other celebratory accouterments like vases of flowers, a bouquet and a bottle of champagne. Christine Binder lights that circle to reflect the changing seasons, with a blazing red after the wedding signaling danger ahead. A moving area on the stage itself serves to roll out a variety of other scenic props -- a pier, a rowboat, some little red cars when Cathy is on the road, a mountain of Jamie's best-selling book, a double bed (for marital and extra-marital activity). When Mr. Butz at one point moves along the activated panel you're fleetingly reminded of the wonderfully choreographed last piece in Contact , but this is no dance musical and this use of the sliding walkway is merely another way from director Daisy Prince to lend visual impact to a marriage that's going nowhere.
Ms. Prince's direction overall is sure-handed with smooth scene-to-scene transitions. The many visual elements supporting the two performers give The Last 5 Years the feel of a real play rather than just two people standing on stage singing. However, the stagecraft can't hide the fact that Cathy and Jamie are more like character types from a marriage counselor's casebook than really memorable individuals. Maybe now that Mr. Brown has fictionally aired his feelings about his own unhappy marriage, he can move on, hopefully sticking to the score and lyrics and leaving the book to someone who doesn't need gimmicks to tell a good story.
A minor aside on the gimmickry: The concern with time even extends to the program's precise listing of the running time -- though I think the performance I saw was closer to 90 than 83 minutes.
Review of recent summer stock revival of I Do, I Do
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
Click image to buy.
Go here for details and larger image.