Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Jason Robert Brown's African-American "Shiksa Goddess"
Also see Bob's review of Carry It On
The Last Five Years is a two-character, ninety minute long, intimate one-act musical. It depicts, principally in song, the five year long relationship between Jamie Wellerstein and Cathy Hiatt. Jamie is a young Jewish novelist on the brink of major success. The Christian (not as intrinsically Catholic as previously) Cathy is an aspiring actress whose career is going nowhere. Jamie tells his story of their relationship from their first date to the breakup of their marriage. Alternating with Jamie, Cathy begins her recall of events with her return to their apartment just after Jamie has ended their relationship. She continues in reverse chronological order, concluding with the night of their first date. The only scene which they simultaneously relate occurs about halfway through the story and depicts their engagement and wedding day.
When Crossroads' (a distinguished Tony Award winning African-American theatre "intended for a broad-based, diverse audience") Artistic Director Marshall Jones III contacted Jason Robert Brown with the prospect of non-traditional casting for The Last Five Years, Brown responded enthusiastically, saying that he was "very excited by the idea of having the show done at Crossroads". Brown and his show have been well rewarded by this Crossroads production. Parenthetically, his loss of the use of the song "I Could Be in Love With Someone Like You" ("I'll deliver shamrocks daily/ Buy your pa a new shillelagh") and its replacement with "Shiksa Goddess" ("' ...I'm finally breaking through'/ I'd say 'Hey! Hey! Shiksa goddess!/ I've been waiting for someone like you'") makes the employment of an African-American Cathy a no brainer.
While there is high praise due all around, the principal magician here is director Leah C. Gardiner. For all its brilliant complexity in characterization and story and its terrific score, in earlier productions, the complexities have been difficult to sort out. Just how bad is Jamie? And how and when did he cease to be the Jamie that Cathy never stops loving? Or did she stop loving him? Does Cathy bear any responsibility for Jamie's disaffection? Did the looming trajectory of their careers and their needs predestine the course of their relationship? Gardiner, with the strong assistance of her actors, illuminates these relationship issues and more, and takes us deeply and sympathetically into the hearts of Cathy and (yes) Jamie. Eric Southern's open and airy scenic and lighting design features eight or so varied and attractive lighting fixtures and lamps, half high above the settings and actors, and left at the same level behind a transparent and translucent off-white curtain behind which the orchestra can be observed. There are also eight vertical strands of lights, four clear, four blue above the orchestra which are lit in various combinations or left unlit as befits the needs of each scene.
Jason Robert Brown's exciting and eclectic score (theatrical rock, "standard" romantic ballad, folk, waltz, Latin, klezmer) with its complex plot and character lyrics fully illuminates The Last Five Years as I have never heard them do before. The orchestra superlatively performs (what sound like) Jason Robert Brown's delightful orchestrations. It would be unfair to overlook the contribution of sound designer Matt Sherwin in amplifying the viscerally thrilling orchestral sound.
It would not be possible to over praise Wendy Fox. Surely, Fox fulfills the need for Cathy to be attractive, but the quality (in addition to otherness) that most makes for a "shiksa goddess" that self abasing Jewish boys find loveable is sweet adorability. There are many other facets and attitudes that Fox brilliantly delineates, but it is the ability to convey that particular quality which makes her a "goddess." Fox amazingly combines the power, accuracy, control, variety, tone and clarity of her singing with a precise and clear interpretation and rendering of the shifting moods and emotions of Cathy. I could cite virtually any song here as an example of her outstanding work. I certainly can't go wrong with "A Summer in Ohio," in which she combines comic delight with chanteuse sophistication.
For the most part, Nicholas Belton's Jamie is a fine match for Cathy. Not only does he show us the delightful Jamie with whom Cathy would fall in love, but he also clearly delineates the shifts in Jamie's persona. Belton also has an impressive and supple vocal instrument which he may unnecessarily be employing to channel Norbert Leo Butz. Early on, Belton is too cutesy in his efforts to be winning. It is distracting, artificial, unnecessary, and not believable in Jamie. It causes Belton to lose the effectiveness of the delightful "The Schmuel Song." Belton thereafter recovers to deliver a standout performance. A tremendous high point is his interpretation of "If I Didn't Believe In You." Here, he takes us along with Cathy on the rollercoaster ride that is Jamie. Those who in the past have found Cathy to be a wimpy dishrag to the cruel and selfish Jamie can look forward to a more subtle and satisfying interpretation of both protagonists here.
Leah C. Gardiner has removed the shroud of portentousness from the staging, of pretension from the set design, and darkness from the lighting design of earlier productions to bring a needed and appropriate joyful airiness to both the score and proceedings (more than two-thirds of the score and events are upbeat and funny) which they have not had previously. As an admirer of both Jason Robert Brown and The Last Five Years, over the years, I had come to believe this was an excellent song cycle that was a bit tedious in the theatre and might be enjoyed best on disc. Well, I could not have been more wrong. Song cycle? Not anymore. While not as dark, The Last Five Years remains as accomplished and brilliant as ever. To boot, it has become musical theatre at its most joyous and enthralling.
The Last Five Years continues performances (Evenings: Wednesday-Saturday 8pm (excluding Wednesday 4/25) / Matinees Saturday-Sunday 3 pm /Wed. 4/25 - 10am) through April 29, 2012, at the Crossroads Theatre Company, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ 08901; Box Office: (732)545-8100; online: www.crossroadstheatrecompany.org/
The Last Five Years written and composed by Jason Robert Brown; directed by Leah C. Gardiner