The Last Five Years Concert
Also see Sharon's review of City of Angels
Jason Robert Brown is not a great singer. By which I mean: nobody would pay to hear Jason Robert Brown stand in front of a microphone and belt out someone else's songs. But people do pay to hear him perform his own music. Because, while some Broadway performers are known for being exceptional interpreters of the music of particular composers, nobody interprets Jason Robert Brown's music quite like Jason Robert Brown.
This phenomenon was on display at Reprise's one night only concert production of The Last Five Years, in which Brown added "lead perfomer" and "musical director" to his "written and composed by" credits. Brown is by no means a powerhouse singer. And he clearly knows this - not trying to hold notes longer than he can, and sometimes talking to the music rather than singing to it. But what he also knows is how to make his piano sing the emotions his voice sometimes lacks. And he has an excellent sense of comic timing - he knows exactly where the laughs are in this material, and how to get them. His rendition of "Shiksa Goddess" - in which his single Jewish character, Jamie, expresses his joy in finding the Catholic girl for him - earned applause in the middle of the song for some hugely funny lines. And later in the show, when Jamie is married and trying to resist the temptation of other women, his comically tortured attempts to stay faithful were brilliantly funny, getting laughs where I hadn't known laughs were hidden. I know this show forwards and backwards and I felt like I'd never heard anyone sing this song correctly until now.
Brown's partner in this two-person song cycle was Julia Murney, who played Cathy. From the very start of the show, Murney approached her songs with a whispery weakness to her voice, and only occasionally powered her way through sections of the material. As Cathy's first number, "Still Hurting," is her expression of pain at the demise of her marriage to Jamie (Cathy's songs tell the story in reverse; Jamie's move forward), it wasn't entirely clear if this was an artistic decision on Murney's part or vocal distress. By mid-show, Murney's voice cracked once on "Summer in Ohio," but she still went all out on the number, to the point where I wondered if she would have anything left to finish the show. She did, and finished it well, but her apparent vocal problems ended up preventing her from completely outshining Brown vocally.
Staging a show where the only two characters are rarely in the same place at the same time poses a challenge. Where do they stand? What do they do? Will they have props to handle? By having Brown play the piano while portraying Jamie, the problem was solved. Sometimes he'd sing his songs facing the audience, sometimes facing the piano - but he pretty much always had something to do, even if it was just moving his body along with the music. Murney was placed in different locations for each number - she opened facing the audience standing before a music stand; she sang another song from a benchm and another standing near the piano. Yet, even though both performers generally remained in a single position for the duration of each song, there was no question that they were acting up a storm. Murney created an earnest, cute, needy, sometimes awkward Cathy with a gesture, expression, or read of a lyric. And Brown created an equally clear portrait of the geeky, also needy, sometimes arrogant Jamie.
This production, stripped of any attempts at staging, focused the attention on the songs themselves - which is really where it should be. But, as it wasn't about vocal pyrotechnics, it had the added effect of calling attention to the details of the story and the way in which Brown has so effectively put into song the hopes, desires, and problems that often doom relationships in this era. Jamie's last ditch effort to save their marriage, "If I Didn't Believe in You," is almost painful in how well it reflects relationships we've all seen - both in the beautiful way in which Jamie knows what Cathy needs and tries to give it to her, and the cuttingly patronizing way he speaks to her at the end of the song.
I went into Reprise's The Last Five Years expecting to see what Jason Robert Brown could get out of his songs. I left even more amazed by what he had put into them.
Reprise! Broadway's Best - Jim Gardia, Producing Director - presents The Last Five Years. Written and Composed by Jason Robert Brown. Lighting Design John E.D. Bass; Sound Design Philip G. Allen; Casting by Julia Flores; Press Representative David Elzer/DEMAND P.R.; Stage Manager Andrea Iovino; Company Manager Danny Feldman; General Manager Kelly Estrella. Musical Direction by Jason Robert Brown; Directed by Judy Minor.
The Last Five Years was performed on January 30, 2006.