'The Last Five Years'
May 25, 2001
BY HEDY WEISS theater critic
It takes only two songs--the very first two in the show, in fact--to
clear that Jason Robert Brown's new 80-minute musical,
"The Last Five Years," is a very special piece of work.
It's instantly clear, as well, that this poignant, richly dramatic and
piercingly honest two-character show is destined to be a hit--and not only
at Northlight Theatre, where it received its crystalline world premiere
This is a piece that will challenge every pair of young musical theater
performers willing to wear their broken hearts and bruised egos on their
sleeves, if they also are able to meet the formidable vocal demands of
Brown's lushly melodic music and his strikingly colloquial yet glittering
But about those two opening songs, and the people who sing them.
She, Kathleen (Lauren Kennedy), the tall, slim, leggy Irish girl, is
glimpsed standing in front of boxes packed with the detritus of a brief
marriage. Still awash in the pain and hurt of failed love, she sings of her
anger and loss.
He, Jamie (Norbert Leo Butz), is first caught preening, as if he were
already preparing for his next girlfriend. Yet as it turns out, we are
catching him at the very moment when he fell head over heels for Kathleen,
five years earlier. There he is, an intensely verbal, self-deprecating and
at the same time narcissistic Jewish boy in classic Philip Roth mode,
begging to be struck with "the ancient curse of shiksa queens."
Like a youthful, latter-day Roth, Jamie is a novelist. And at the age
he is quite full of himself, having just landed an agent and a book deal at
a major New York publishing house, as well as the girl of his dreams. (Any
resemblance to the gifted Brown is not entirely coincidental; he nabbed a
Tony Award for the musical "Parade" before he turned 30.)
Like 95 percent of the young aspiring actresses in New York, Kathleen
beset by rejection--repeatedly making a hash of her singing auditions and
stuck in summer-stock productions in Ohio. Her confidence level is at zero.
Though one of them is totally self-involved and the other is self-deflated,
they love each other madly and marry. But as the ingeniously employed
revolve in the stage floor suggests, they start to spin in opposite
The meticulously woven, time-warped structure of Brown's cyclical show--love
in its first thrilling bloom counterpointed with love in aching
retrospect--is beautifully conveyed in those initial songs. And under the
impeccable direction of Daisy Prince (whose father, veteran Broadway
director Hal Prince, was among the opening night crowd), every visual
element of the production reinforces it.
Designer Beowulf Boritt has devised a powerfully poetic set--the upended
room of a wedding party, with chairs and wedding flowers at right angles to
the stage floor, and the shattered foundations of the marriage lying in a
pile. Think of it as a tiered, toppled wedding cake, too, or as a clock
ticking off the moments in opposing directions.
The performers, backed by musical director Tom Murray and Brown on piano
part of a six-piece backstage orchestra, are splendid. Butz (the emcee here
in the national tour of "Cabaret") captures the energy, drive and urban
sharpness as well as the charm and selfish childishness of Jamie. And Brown
has given him a great gift in a brilliant song that unspools as a parable
about a shtetl tailor--a gift that he translates into sublime theatrical
Kennedy embodies the endearing mix of all-American beauty and gawkiness
clearly captivates Jamie, and turns Kathleen's wedding vows scene (staged on
a Central Park rowboat) into a deeply moving expression of the character's
insecurity and innocence.
All these scenes may sound familiar. But Brown's lyrics--alternately
and boldly romantic--sweep the stage like a summer storm. There is little
protective irony here; only the sharp pain of young but damaged hearts.
The Last Five Years