Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey

The Last Five Years Rethought at Women's Theatre Company

James D. Sasser and Lea Antolini
The Last Five Years is a heartfelt, brilliant and brutal musical written in its entirety by one of the American musical theatre's finest younger writers, Jason Robert Brown. It has been carefully rethought by director Lauren Moran Mills for its current incarnation at the Women's Theatre Company. It appears that the savvy Mills has attempted to soften characterization in order to make the work more palatable to her audience. The result is a lyrical, thoroughly professional production. Unfortunately, for the most part, Mills' approach is completely texturally at odds with Brown's intention. The production is repeatedly undermined by the unblinking heated passion and honesty of the work itself.

The two-character, one-act intimate musical is alternatively told almost entirely in song by Jamie and Cathy. 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 attempts at an acting career are going nowhere. 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 of their relationship chronologically from beginning to end. The only scene which they share together occurs about halfway through the relationship when their stories intersect on the day of their wedding (in a coda at the end, their separate scenes are played simultaneously).

The Last Five Years 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 musical'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. Reportedly, as a result of artistic differences between the theatre and Brown, Lincoln Center ultimately dropped the entire project.

Pursuant to the terms of the settlement of the lawsuit, Brown made extensive revisions. According to reports, alterations were made in the female character, a number of lyrics were changed, and one song ("I Could Be in Love With Someone Like You") was dropped in its entirety and replaced with "Shiksa Goddess." The present, revised version premiered Off-Broadway in April, 2002. The reviews were lukewarm, and Years ran for little more than two months. However, it has since become very popular, receiving dozens of well received productions throughout the country. It has also begun to be produced internationally.

Although the song cycle form of The Last Five Years tends to make the musical somewhat static, this is more than compensated for by the high quality of its rich and varied score, the dexterity, aptness, depth and insight of its lyrics, and its passionate heart.

James D. Sasser is musically secure as he smoothly caresses Brown's lyrics and our appreciate ears, but Sasser does not capture Jamie, the self-centered, self-hating budding genius who sleeps around with other women and routinely neglects his wife. Although he describes The Last Five Years as personal, not autobiographical, Jason Robert Brown appears to have been unflinchingly tough on himself . Director Mills and Sasser have gone too far in soft-pedaling Jamie's bad behavior. Sasser is at his best portraying Jamie at his nicest when singing "The Schmuel Song." However, the range and emerging meanness of the indescribably brilliant "If I Didn't Believe in You" are lost.

There is greater room for interpretation for an actress playing the less fully developed Cathy. Cathy, who is at first seen by Jamie as an irresistible beauty, can be portrayed as being at various places along a spectrum ranging from being too shallow and simple to retain Jamie's interest to being worthy and ambitious, and unable or unwilling to put up with the cruelty of Jamie. Lea Antolini, who is miscast, fails to lend any depth to her interpretation of Cathy. Still, perky, likeable, and anxious to please, Antolini's renditions of the upbeat and witty "A Summer in Ohio" and "I Can Do Better Than That" are delightful.

In an apparent effort to make this song cycle less static, director Lauren Moran Mills has extensively inserted the protagonists into one another's scenes. The unintended result is that it becomes difficult to mentally follow the alternating flows of the narrative. On several occasions, it is hard to place where a scene of one or the other is in its inappropriate time frame.

Todd Mills' simple set featuring a table and two chairs, and three large floor to ceiling sized paned windows is most suitable. It is also less fussy and distracting than Beowulf Boritt's set for the Off-Broadway set as well as Boritt's somewhat less so set for George Street.

Warren Helms continues to provide outstanding musical direction and accompaniment for Women's Theatre productions. His verve, lyricism, and uncanny accuracy at the keyboards are breathtaking. In this instance, his keyboards may be too lyrical, too perfect. On one occasion (during "Shiksa Goddess") I was thrilled to hear some unmuted stride piano-like notes that Jason Robert Brown applied to his score with abandon when he conducted and accompanied The Last Five Years at the Minetta Lane. Tim Metz is on bass.

For those who haven't seen the incredibly rich The Last Five Years, this production admirably provides an opportunity to see it.

The Last Five Years, continues performances (Evenings: Friday and Saturday 8 pm/Matinees.: Sunday 3 pm) through March 18, 2012, at the Women's Theatre Company at the Parsippany Playhouse, 1130 Knoll Road, Lake Hiawatha, N.J.

The Last Five Years, Written and Composed by Jason Robert Brown, directed by Lauren Moran Mills

Cathy………………Lea Antolini
Jamie……….James D. Sasser

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- Bob Rendell

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