Inventive musical rises above its production

The Last Five Years highlights its major talents
by Richard Ouzounian
Toronto Star
NEW YORK The next time you hear someone telling you that there's nobody writing exciting, contemporary music for the theatre, say three words to them: Jason Robert Brown.

His new musical, The Last Five Years ( ), at New York's Minetta Lane Theater, may have some serious problems with its production, but Brown's songs and the talented duo who perform them (Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie René Scott) are first-class all the way.

Brown was brought to Toronto in 1994 by Marty Bell and Garth Drabinsky, who work-shopped his Songs For A New World, which opened off-Broadway to critical acclaim in a 1995 production directed by Daisy Prince.

Her father, showbiz legend Harold Prince, tapped Brown to write the score for his next musical, Parade. Starring Brent Carver, the show won Brown a Tony Award after its 1998 opening, but the critics weren't kind and it closed after a few months.

The next few years were a difficult time for Brown, as his once-soaring career stalled and his marriage to an aspiring actress broke up acrimoniously. (When The Last Five Years was first announced, Brown's ex-wife invoked a non-disclosure clause in their divorce settlement and demanded changes to the script.)

Fortunately, he has made use of his adversity, and created not only a deeply affecting study of a failing relationship, but a rueful rhapsody on the trajectory of success. Brown's show is a skillful and treacherously clever two-character exercise in which Jamie tells their story forward while Cathy lives it backward.

We begin with him at the height of infatuation and her in the depths of despair, and end with the positions reversed. The two only actually sing together once, in the show's middle, on their wedding day.

He's a young Jewish novelist whose star is rising faster than fast. She's his "shiksa goddess," an actress with a career that can't get started.

It should have been obvious from Day One this relationship would have problems, but everybody knows about hindsight. What's really important is that the two were truly in love at the start, and the brilliance of Brown's structure is that it's not until the final curtain that we realize how deep those feelings went.

There's only a hint of dialogue: Brown does it all in his songs, and they're wonderful. Jamie is full of driving rhythms and rock-flavoured harmonies, while Cathy is more musical comedy, as befits her background.

Brown isn't afraid of soaring melodies and open-hearted sentiments ("Trap or trip us but we refuse to fall"), but he also can turn everyday speech into deftly humorous lyrics that rhyme "Mona Lisa" with "use my Visa."

He's been blessed with a gifted cast. Norbert Leo Butz (who appeared as the Emcee in the first Toronto tour of Cabaret) has the kind of high clear voice that pop music thrives on, but also acts his songs with true depth of commitment.

Despite the autobiographical nature of the show, Brown is tough on his alter ego Jamie, and Butz honestly realizes all sides of this abrasively appealing artist.

Sherie René Scott scores brilliantly as well. At first you wonder how a woman with such radiant blonde beauty could fail to make it big as an actress. Then Scott takes you inside Cathy's head and you see how this woman's insecurities could ultimately prove to be self-defeating. She has charm and talent, but no resilience.

Jamie sums it up when he realizes why he finally has to walk away from her: "I will not lose just because you can't win."

Some critics have complained that Brown's characters are not sympathetic enough. They miss the whole point. These are self-absorbed young people who want it all, but don't know what to do once they start getting it. They are very recognizable and very real.

Then what's wrong with The Last Five Years? The production by Daisy Prince. She's staged it on a grandiose wedding sculpture by Beowulf Boritt that overwhelms the actors, while an assortment of truly tacky mini-sets slide in and out on a turntable under the woefully old-fashioned lighting of Christine Binder.

If ever a show needed a stylish unit setting and contemporary illumination to help the time-travelling narrative cohere, this is it. Prince fragments the whole thing further and many of the notices blamed the author's material for things that are really wrong with the director's vision.

If you're in New York, catch this production for the awesome talents of Brown, Butz and Scott.

Otherwise, wait for what will surely be a memorable original cast recording, and hope that someone decides to mount it (with a different production, please!) in Toronto.

The Last Five Years