Theater review by Adam Feldman. Second Stage Theatre (Off Broadway). By Jason Robert Brown. Dir. Brown. With Adam Kantor, Betsy Wolfe. 1hr 25mins. No intermission.
Jason Robert Brown’s 2002 musical The Last Five Years has grown, in the last ten years, into a staple of college stages, regional theaters, audition rooms and piano bars. Its appeal to show-tune lovers is obvious: Brown’s work overflows with verbal acuity, deftly combining Broadway and pop influences into music that is catchy, surprising and character-specific. Each number is in essence a theatrical monologue, because The Last Five Years’ central couple—Jamie (the appealing Kantor), a neurotic novelist, and Cathy (Wolfe), a needy would-be actress—shares only a single scene in the middle of the show. Otherwise, these soon-to-be exes travel different lines of an X-shaped structure, in which his story moves forward from their courtship to their breakup while hers is told in reverse, in the sliced vein of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along.
Many of the songs work wonderfully on their own, but the cumulative effect of The Last Five Years’ he-sang-she-sang pattern is tiring; since we get little sense of Jamie and Cathy as a happy pair, the inevitability of their romantic decay seems more sour than bittersweet. Their relationship is a bit like that of (a perversely separated) Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: As a prestigious writer, he gives her class; as a blond “shiksa goddess,” she gives him sex; and the format effectively compels her to do everything he does backward and in heels. (Although Brown strives to present both sides, his balance tilts toward Jamie, the prodigious and sensitive artist, over Cathy, the deadweight he comes to outgrow.)
Despite its flaws, The Last Five Years is an admirable showcase for its composer as well as its actors, whose meticulously worked-out performances fill every moment with business and intention. Directed by Brown himself, who ensures that each lyric is perfectly clear, this Second Stage revival sometimes verges on fussy; one misses the ease that original stars Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott brought to their parts. But both Kantor and Wolfe get chances to shine; he is especially adept with the comic material, and she has impressive vocal control. In ten years, it will be interesting to see how far they’ve gone.—Adam Feldman
Follow Adam Feldman on Twitter: @FeldmanAdam