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The Last Five Years
Now getting its first major New York production since it first opened Off Broadway in 2002, The Last Five Years has always been considered somewhat like the flip-side of I Do! I Do! the Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt musical in which we see a couple survive the ups and downs over fifty years of marriage. The flip side from Brown's viewpoint is definitely less fun.
There is no denying that this musical, which has had a healthy life in regional theaters, is a rather bitter pill to swallow in that it attempts to shift and manipulate our empathy as well as our feelings about its two and only protagonists. This has to be achieved by the sheer persuasive power of each performer. It would be nice to say that Adam Kantor as Jamie and Betsy Wolfe as Cathy were able to make me care deeply about or for them. I couldn't, nor did I feel I was meant to try.
It may be both the fault of seeing the show so soon that it now seems more cleverly devised than emotionally involving. Or it may also be the fault of two splendid actors who, try as they might, don't make their respective arias resonate with anything more than what the score provides, even under the smoothly commendable direction of the composer.
Apparently inspired by his own failed first marriage, Brown used his distinctly personalized point of view to compose a story as told from the diverging perspectives of his two characters. Through them we see how their marriage was doomed to failure and specifically how infidelity and contemporary career issues pebble that course.
Each character tells the story comprised of sung soliloquies from different starting points. Cathy begins her story at the end of the marriage and Jamie begins when he first falls in love with Cathy. Only during the middle when they get married do the two stories cross paths.
The big hurdle is for us to feel that these two people could have made their marriage work, had this or that happened or had this or that been said. But sadly neither compromises nor options play a role. The way the musical is structured and staged only underlines the degree of their separateness.
Given that the songs are there to evoke the inner needs and wants of Cathy and Jamie, they mainly reinforce the fact that they are unable to have a common meeting ground. What they end up with is a stalemated relationship, with one going one way and one going the other way. What we end up with is a musical concept/gimmick without the benefit of an emotional commitment to either Cathy or Jamie.
Kantor, who won accolades for his performance on Broadway in Rent and Next to Normal, would appear to be ideally cast as the Jamie Wallerstein, a young, ambitious, Jewish writer flush with the success of his first novel. What perhaps is not ideal is the thick layer of callous self-absorption that he affixes to Jamie's otherwise boyishly cocky pursuit and winning of his "shiksa goddess." We don't particularly like this Jamie or see his side of the issues with even a little empathy. Yet, there is no doubt about the resoluteness he puts into "Moving Too Fast," or the amount of guilt he reveals in trying to rationalize his infidelity in "Nobody Needs to Know."
Wolfe, who recently played Rosa Bud in the revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, plays the unquestionably more likable character. She is quite delightful as the aspiring actress whose career moves are not as meaningful as she would like in the light of Jamie's rapid success. As much as I admired Wolfe's singing and acting though, her Cathy also appears almost ridiculous in the way she cant quite grasp the idea that wherever her husband's devotion is, it is not in service to her. She has her most endearing and the show's wittiest scene singing "Climbing Uphill," as part of a very funny "Audition Sequence."
Cathy and Jamie inhabit a simple but well-designed setting created by Derek McLane. It features lots of small hanging windows upon which upon which projections and graphics provide a sense of where and when. Set pieces such as a row boat and a bed glide into view. In constant view are the six musicians perched like an artistic installation on the back wall of the set.
Whatever it is, we end up feeling for Cathy and Jamie, it won't be for their lack of musical and dramatic commitment to Brown's ambitious score.
Editor's Note: No doubt the economical casting and the opportunity Brown's music affords musical theater actors to shine, will insure that the current anniversary edition will not be the last of this little musical's 3000 productions world wide. Naturally, some who interpret Brown's unhappily married pair will satisfy more than others. To read my review of the original production click here. e.s.
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