Musical appealing despite gimmicky setup

Monday, March 04, 2002

Star-Ledger Staff

NEW YORK -- A new contemporary musical, intimate, unusual and a bit challenging, awaits you at "The Last Five Years," which opened Sunday at the Minetta Lane Theatre.

In a way, writer-composer Jason Robert Brown delivers two musicals in one 85-minute off-Broadway show.
A musical account of a marriage that ultimately fails (an alternative title might be "I Don't! I Don't!"), the story is told both backwards and forwards from the couple's separate points of view.

So the two-character tuner opens with Cathy bereft among packing boxes, reading her husband Jamie's farewell note as she sings a sorrowful "Still Hurting."

The very next song -- the musical holds virtually no dialogue -- is Jamie's funny, upbeat "Shiksa Goddess," which takes place in their lives five years earlier when he first meets his wife-to-be.

That's the way their alternating narratives trace the relationship: from a happy start leading to a pensive ending on Jamie's side and from the bitter conclusion back to a hopeful beginning from Cathy's perspective. Their time lines cross -- and their only duet blossoms -- on the couple's wedding day.

Yes, it's tricky. No, it doesn't really work very well. Perhaps it's a conditioned response, but your mind tends to resist a backward motion in storytelling.

Aside from the occasional flashback, chronology nearly always moves forward in mainstream theater. "Betrayal" and "Merrily We Roll Along" are the best-known exceptions, and let's remember that Stephen Sondheim's musical was a flop until people in time came to appreciate his great score.

At any rate, Cathy's side of the relationship isn't easy to follow. What divides the couple is their careers as Jamie quickly zooms upwards as a novelist while Cathy, a struggling actress, resents his success. Oh, yes -- and Jamie sleeps around.

Format aside, it's not the most original story ever to break into song. Fortunately, there's abundant appeal to the handsome music and lyrics written by Brown, best known for "Parade," his impressive 1999 musical about the lynching of Leo Frank.

A smart, sophisticated score like this one demands more than one hearing to appreciate. Generally its sound is late 20th-century pop in the Billy Joel-Randy Newman manner but expanded to the needs of musical theater.

Thoughtfully composed in a variety of forms, Brown's cycle of songs enrich the characters and their bifurcated saga. There's even a deft parody -- for an audition piece Cathy sings more than once -- of a glowing Rodgers & Hammerstein ballad that sounds straight out of "Allegro."

Brown shadows his orchestrations with cellos as a reminder that despite a considerable amount of humor, the musical essentially concerns heartbreak.

Brown's lyrics are especially accomplished; clever, tender or aching in feeling as dictated by the drama, frequently insightful and always expertly crafted. Best, a conversational ease about the wordplay makes his songs reach out to listeners.

Conveying their characters' shifting emotions with affecting simplicity, Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott are a pleasure to see, hear and be touched by.

Director Daisy Prince's staging makes good use of Beowulf Boritt's imaginative setting that involves a bird's eye view of a circular white patio arranged with chairs as if for a just-concluded wedding ceremony. The decor suggests something that is already over, yet only beginning, too -- an apt visual metaphor for an uncommon musical.

The Last Five Years