'Last Five Years' speeds by quickly
By Elysa Gardner
NEW YORK -- First, the good news: Someone finally has written
a rock opera with none of the bombast associated with both rock and musical
theater at their most excessive.
OK, The Last Five Years (two-and-a-half out of four stars), which opened off-Broadway Sunday at the Minetta Lane Theatre, isn't really a rock opera.
It's more a dramatic song cycle that, like many contemporary musicals,
integrates elements of pop, folk and R&B. But unlike most contemporary
musicals -- and certainly unlike any rock opera I can think of -- Years
is a scrupulously spare, technically modest effort, featuring only two characters, a very basic set design (carried off with playful panache by Beowulf Boritt) and a running time of just 83 minutes.
In those 83 minutes, unfortunately, composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown manages to pack in enough cliches about modern relationships, career struggles and urban life to fuel an entire new season of Seinfeld.
The musical focuses on Jamie Wellerstein, an ambitious young novelist, and Cathy Hiatt, the aspiring actress he falls in love with. Their stories unfold at counterpoint, with Cathy tracing their five-year romance backward and Jamie starting at the beginning, progressing through their marriage and the troubles that eventually dissolve it.
In her opening number, the girl laments that she is "sure something wonderful died"; the boy, meanwhile, describes his mixed feelings of bliss and terror after having met a "shiksa goddess." (Roughly translated, for
those not familiar with Yiddish, that means a non-Jewish babe who puts fear in the hearts of traditional Jewish moms with eligible sons.)
Their dilemmas hardly grow more original or provocative. Jamie agonizes over the temptations posed by other women and the demands of a thriving professional life, all the while professing his love for Cathy. Cathy agonizes over her own less-than-thriving professional life and attendant self-worth issues, all the while professing her love for Jamie. He gets a glowing review from John Updike in The New Yorker; she gets attacked by mosquitoes doing summer stock in Ohio. Communication falters, dreams clash and ... well, sometimes love just ain't enough.
Luckily, Brown's flair for graceful, accessible melodies makes his characters' navel-gazing more tolerable. His songs are pop-savvy but distinctly theatrical, and his warm, elegant orchestrations enhance their
alternately droll and plaintive qualities. The lyrics are engagingly quirky at times, though Brown's wordplay can be self-conscious and uninspired. When Jamie sings to his beloved, "You're afraid to go out on a limb-ovich" -- adding the suffix to the last word to make it rhyme with the name of a town he has invented for a story -- the contrivance is too cute for comfort.
Playing Jamie, Norbert Leo Butz finesses such moments with a relaxed, good-humored charm, and delivers more earnest sentiments with the right balance of conviction and restraint. As Cathy, Sherie Rene Scott suffers more for all her character's sulking and whining. Though the actress sings potently, her numbers are marred by a curious physical hyperactivity, manifested most clearly in a chronic wringing of hands that can make her appear -- particularly during long-held notes -- to be fighting for breath.
Theater fans who are themselves desperate for fresh air won't find much at the Minetta Lane these days. But for those who above all value brevity and simplicity -- those rarest of qualities in modern musicals -- The Last Five Years is a short and bittersweet diversion.
The Last Five Years