It's generally safe to assume, when attending a musical, that there will be a love story, and the audience will need to do little more than see how the creators have chosen to present it. Audiences at the Minetta Lane Theatre for Jason Robert Brown's new musical The Last Five Years will find they have more work ahead of them than usual.
In this case, Brown has decided to move the love story in two directions at the same time. Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott are playing Jamie Wellerstein and Cathy Hyatt, a couple who meets, falls in love, gets married, and then divorced, all over the course of five years. However, Jamie's story progresses chronologically from the time of their first meeting to their painful breakup, while Cathy's contributions are presented backward, moving from the end of their relationship to its first hopeful moments.
Daisy Prince's sensitive direction is also vital in making a highly unusual concept watchable, and she does a fine job in keeping everything in line; you really get the sense that, during their relationship, Cathy and Jamie were never in the same place at the same time.
Butz and Scott are great. They are both able to put over their songs with great style and energy, whether they're comedy, drama, or something in between. They both have powerful voices and firm grasps on their characters, and it's difficult not to believe either of them utterly.
Brown's score, too, is excellent. They almost all seem to be heavily pop-influenced, but have a modern musical theatre air about them, too. Most importantly, each song is, in essence, a complete scene unto itself, rounded out fully with character and story to help push the show along.
And therein lies the problem.
The sheer number of story songs gives the play a very choppy feel; the lights will come down on either Jamie or Cathy at the end of one song, only to come up on the other about to sing another complete story. The transitions are, for most intents and purposes, missing. We don't see the characters grow and change as much as we see them at different stages of their relationship's evolution. Most of the time, this just isn't satisfying.
Frequently, though, it's maddening. Some of the songs - like "A Summer in Ohio," in which Cathy details the results of pursuing her acting dreams, or the hilarious "Climbing Uphill" which follows her on the audition circuit - are so brilliant, you want them to be more connected, you want them working together in a fully fleshed-out musical play rather than having to each do the work of an entire scene by themselves.
Only one time during the show does the premise really work, and that's near the middle of the show. That Jamie and Cathy's wedding is the first (and practically the only) time they are singing together is significant enough, but the lead-in is more brilliant still. The wedding is preceded by a brief scene with Jamie rowing a boat and is followed by a scene of Cathy being rowed by Jamie in exactly the same scene.
The three scenes are constructed so perfect and fluid, you become all too aware of what's missing during the rest of the show; that creativity was missing before, and it's missing again after. Even at the very beginning and very end of the show, when Cathy and Jamie are most at odds (one at the start of their relationship and one at the end), the emotion is strangely muted--they walked toward each other, around each other, and swap positions onstage, but little more. In fact, when it happens at the end of the show, the music stops so abruptly, it almost doesn't seem like the show can be over.
But over it is, and far too soon. The Last Five Years never reaches the level its mostly gorgeous music and unique method of storytelling suggests it can achieve. Like Cathy and Jamie, all the pieces were present for a while, but they just didn't seem destined to work together.
The Last Five Years