Week of March 6 - 12, 2002

Pairing It Down
by Michael Feingold
The Village Voice

A little delicate clarity would go a long way toward helping The Last 5 Years, which ranks extremely high on my list of evenings I really wanted to like but didn't. As in his score for Parade, Jason Robert Brown's songs, which make up the show's entire text, are full of talent, intelligence, and an almost frenzied urge to find the perfect vocal-music expression for an emotional state, capturing it in transit the way a Bernini sculpture captures a passing gesture. The trouble is that gestures don't add up dramatically, and 83 minutes of Brown's songs has exactly the same cumulative effect as a detached series of frozen gestures; their frequent individual beauty doesn't compensate for the overall feeling of stasis.

Tracing the rise and fall of a marital relationship, the work has another problem in production: It's really more a sort of pop duo cantata than a theater event, and belongs on the bare stage of a cabaret, with mics in the performers' hands and the backup band for scenery. Except for two very brief segments, we never see or hear the characters together in Daisy Prince's production, a visual choice that heightens the show's feelings of desolation and abandonment, but also makes its self-crossed lovers seem even smaller and lonelier in the big empty space under the Minetta Lane's proscenium arch. The more production elements Prince throws at the piece, starting with the huge chipped wedding-banquet plate on Beowulf Borrit's backdrop, the more threadbare and less theatrical it looks. Rowboats track in, beds roll on, books rain from the flies, but they don't convince us that anything's happening.

All that is happening, in fact, is that two talented people are taking turns singing some fair-to-excellent songs. Rather than characters, Brown's Jamie and Cathy have situations—he's a Jewish novelist from the 'burbs, she's a small-town shiksa escaping the mall-rat race. This simultaneously leaves them vague and prevents them from seeming universal. This puts everything squarely on the shoulders of Sherie Rene Scott and Norbert Leo Butz—sturdy, appealing, youthful shoulders, with attractive heads on them, producing strong, pleasant pop voices. The man is the more active (though less sympathetic) figure, and Butz, who outpaces Scott in flamboyance and emotional range, as well as in vocal resilience, easily dominates the evening. (He'll be Jewish, however, around the time Nat Hentoff replaces Cardinal Egan.) Scott's very real charms, including a sweet voice and a sly streak of low-key comedy, are almost as badly misused here as in Aida; she's not inherently one of those pieces of industrial belting equipment with which recent Broadway shows have tended to replace women. She'd have a better chance in a world with better sense—where people could enjoy the quality of work that's gone into The Last 5 Years without having to pretend that it's theater.

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The Last Five Years