Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Musical The Last 5 Years
Do you want to see an intelligent, provocative adult musical with one of the most exciting, melodic and eclectic contemporary scores written for the American theatre during the past decade? For the next month, the George Street Playhouse is where you want to be. The musical is the intensely personal and brutally honest The Last 5 Years.
Written and composed by Jason Robert Brown, TL5Y was inspired by the five year relationship of Brown and his ex-wife, Theresa O'Neill, which culminated with the collapse of their marriage. The show's initial Chicago production in June, 2001, resulted in a lawsuit by O'Neill; she felt that the musical too closely depicted her marriage. The impending lawsuit resulted in the removal of the musical from the Lincoln Center Theatre schedule. It was later reported that artistic differences between the theatre and Brown resulted in Lincoln Center ultimately dropping the entire project.
Pursuant to the terms of the settlement of the suit, Brown made extensive revisions. According to reports, alterations were made in the female character, a number of lyrics were changed, and one song was dropped in its entirety (to be replaced by another). The present, revised version premiered Off-Broadway in April, 2002. The reviews were lukewarm, and The Last 5 Years ran for little more than two months. However, it has since become very popular, receiving dozens of productions through out the country. It has also begun to be produced internationally.
The two character, 84-minute one-act intimate musical is alternatively told by Jamie and Cathy almost entirely in song. Jamie is a novelist. He is young, Jewish and on the brink of success. Cathy is an aspiring actress. She is young, Catholic, and her career is a washout. Cathy begins her version of events at the moment of their final parting and continues her story in reverse chronological order, concluding with their first meeting. Jamie presents his version from beginning to end chronologically. The only scene which they share together occurs about halfway through the relationship when their stories intersect on the day of their wedding.
Diametrically opposite to the relationship between Jamie and Cathy, familiarity and time will enhance one's appreciation of The Last 5 Years. This is a very dense and emotionally complex portrait of two very real people. You will have to decide whether Brown is guilty of only deeply exploring Jamie, and presenting a largely superficial account of Cathy, or, if alternatively, the sad truth is that Cathy is a superficial person unable to meet the needs and expectations of Jamie. Clearly from Brown's, I mean Jamie's, point of view she is (to quote the Gretchen Cryer lyric) "just a clinging vine".
Most audiences will be more sympathetic to Cathy than to Jamie. No matter how hard Brown is on Cathy in presenting her limitations, his Jamie is a totally selfish and self-centered prodigy in his twenties who sleeps around with other women and routinely neglects his wife. However, the writing allows an audience to both sympathize with Cathy about Jamie's neglect of her, and then later understand that Cathy is wrong not to be there for him. There are those who will argue that Jamie's behavior is simply reprehensible. Of course, expect no such view of the author's alter ego here.
Brown has described his work here as personal, but not autobiographical. It is in Jamie's humorously over-the-top opening song "Shiksa Goddess" that the difference is immediately visible. Brown's Jamie is clearly shown in the worst possible light here to allow Brown to satirize the undeniable tendency of Jewish males (surely including himself) to be attracted to "shiksas" and regard Jewish females in negative, stereotypical terms.
A major element of this story is the toll that the success of one person can take on an unsuccessful mate. However, there are too many other elements and subtleties at work here to totally blame the implosion of the relationship on this. To the contrary, given their personalities, it would seem that the relationship is doomed from the very beginning.
The music is excitingly eclectic and accessible. Driving theatrical rock, old fashioned romantic ballads, folk, Irish traditional, waltz, Latin dance, klezmer ("Shiksa Goddess" combines the latter two), along with charm and rhythm and comedy songs seamlessly blend into a theatrical score which tells a character driven, complex emotional story. Brown blissfully never eschews the pleasures of beautiful melody. The lyrics sing musically and, at the same time, have the natural rhythms of everyday speech without ever being prosy or prosaic.
The problem is that there is too much too absorb and appreciate at one sitting. One has to labor so hard to follow all of the often subtle twists in the lyrics that it can be difficult to follow the trajectory of the music. Whether it is the acoustics or the enunciation of the cast, some words could not be clearly discerned. Additionally, as no other actors are present, we sometimes lack for visual clues as to who may be present in a particular scene. Putting all these potential obstacles together, the details of the story can be difficult to follow.
Colin Hanlon does well by the vocal demands of the role of Jamie. However, Hanlon lacks the tense neurotic passion that Brown pours into his music here, and his very physicality hardly suggests a young man who would sing "Shiksa Goddess." On the other hand, he possesses a tenderness during Jamie's quieter, more romantic moments that is quite appealing and believable. Hanlon is at his most effective dueting with Litzsinger on "The Next Ten Minutes."
Sarah Litzsinger is a fine Cathy in all respects. Litzsinger captures our sympathy without begging for it ("I'm Still Hurting"), is delightfully perky singing of her earlier life ("I Can Do Better Than That") and brings out the full humor of her summer stock debacle ("A Summer in Ohio" - "with a gay midget named Carl playing Tevye and Porgy.")
The set design by Beowulf Borritt, a variation and improvement on his topsy turvy design for the original NY production, features two slanted rotating circular platforms on different levels which kind of come together (for the wedding sequence), but more often, remain far apart. Still, it is busy and distracting. A simpler set with the upstage musicians visible might work better here. The clever lighting design by Christopher J. Bailey interplays with the set to provide various scenic effects. I do not understand why the Christmas tree topped by the Star of David remained in view throughout after it was revealed during a Christmas scene. I was also distracted by the projected cathedral windows for the wedding sequence as there is oddly no mention in the text as to the nature (civil/religious) of the ceremony.
Director David Saint has delivered a clean, straightforward production which preserves the riches of an exceptional musical. The six piece orchestra led by conductor Ben Cohn uses the distinctive original arrangements (piano, violin, cello (2), guitar, bass) of composer Jason Robert Brown.
It appears likely that in 2002, the rich palette that Jason Robert Brown created was too difficult for many to absorb along with an unfamiliar, eclectic, virtually non-stop score. However, when people had the chance to familiarize themselves with the music and lyrics on the original cast album, it became a favorite of many theatre professionals and aficionados. It is highly recommended that newcomers to The Last 5 Years try to listen to the cast CD before seeing it.
The Last 5 Years is both an outstanding sung through pop musical with a rhythmically propulsive and melodious score, and an intense adult, character driven musical depicting painful, honest emotions. This veteran Jason Robert Brown observer has found that it requires intense concentration and more than one viewing to fully appreciate The Last 5 Years. The rewards are well worth the effort.
The Last 5 Years continues performances through May 15, 2005 (Eves: Tues.-Sat 8 PM, Sun 7 PM; Mats Sat & Sun (except. 4/30) 2 PM; Thurs. (4/28) 2 PM) at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ 08901, Box Office: 732-246-7717; online: www.GSPonline.org.
The Last 5 Years composed and written by Jason Robert Brown; directed by David Saint