National Post, Toronto 4/30/04

Straight to the Heart
Theatre Review
By Robert Cushman

                I sat through the first night of The Last 5 Years, a two-handed musical that is almost through-sung, wearing a smile that must sometimes have broadened into a grin. Some of the laugh lines in my face could be attributed to the laugh lines in the songs; there are some very funny lyrics here. But more of them derived from sheer pleasure in the craftsmanship of what I was watching and, especially, hearing. I also felt a tightening in my throat, because the story the show tells is both painful and believable, and in my fists, because I desperately wanted to know what both the author and the characters were going to come up with next.

                This last matter, as it happens, is a little more complicated than is usual in a musical. Jason Robert Brown - the 33-year-old New Yorker who wrote the music, the lyrics and what little there is in the way of dialogue - tells the story of Jamie and Cathy, who in their mid-twenties meet, fall in love, and get married. Jamie is Jewish and Cathy Gentile. Jamie is a precociously successful novelist, Cathy an enduringly unsuccessful actress. Jamie has bags of self-confidence, Cathy has very little. Temperamental and professional differences drive them apart. The show tells the story from both their points of view, alternately. Only Jamie’s journey is shown to us chronologically, from first date to breakup, and Cathy’s in reverse. They meet only at the midpoint, when Jamie proposes, occasioning the one real duet in the show. The concept can be hard to keep straight in your head, but it’s a piercingly original image from the relationship of two people who are - to resort to a rather less original image - like two ships passing in a five-year night.

                Apart from neatly combining the suspense of forward motion with the built-in pathos of flashback, the device keeps us guessing about where to bestow our sympathies. We start with Cathy, just after Jamie has walked out; she’s the victim and we’re on her side. Then we switch to Jamie, who has just seen Cathy for the first time, hugging himself over having finally found a Shiksa Goddess (that’s the song’s title) after years of intra-ethnic dating: “I’ve had Shabbas dinners/on Friday nights/With ev’ry Shapiro/in Washington Heights.” I already liked the show, but those lines in that song crashed all my defences.

                Exhilarating as the number is, it doesn’t actually make you like Jamie; he’s too bumptious, too full of himself. And - though generations of nice Jewish boys will know the feeling - isn’t it just a bit shallow to fall in love with a girl mainly because she isn’t Jewish? It’s a possible criticism of the show that it doesn’t develop this theme, although there is a later tour-de-force song: a homemade Talmudic fable delivered as a prelude to handing Cathy a Christmas present. But mainly the show pursues other things.

                We follow Cathy’s self-consciousness about a second-rate tour she’s in (“I think you’re really gonna like this show/I’m pretty sure it doesn’t suck”) and her anger when her frail hopes collapse (“You can’t spend a single day/That’s not about/You”). We see Jamie exultantly taking calls from his agent, and Cathy barely able to place a call to hers. We see Cathy, whom the shape of the show has hitherto landed with all the down numbers, finally get an exultant work-out with the score’s nearest approach to a traditional show tune, a sardonically joyous routing set in her dressing-room in Ohio. We laugh and suffer with her through a humiliating sequence of auditions. We watch Jamie move up and move on, and we’re inclined to resent it as she does, but we also come to realize that he has a point, and to acknowledge the truth in his line - one of the bleakest ever sung in a musical - “I will not lose because you can’t win”.

                Eventually we give up judging. We recognize that these are two people who love one another and that, however much we want it for them, that just isn’t enough. The show is apparently autobiographical, based on the author’s first marriage, but it plays as an independent creation and, by the end, a very moving one.

                The show is, obviously, post Stephen Sondheim. Brown’s lyrics don’t have the undeviating tautness of Sondheim’s but they are usually on target, sometimes brilliantly so. Musically, Brown adopts Sondheim’s technique of using high discordant notes to convey anger or anguish or both. The central duet, too, begins by recalling Sunday in the Park with George, and has later phrases that fleetingly recall the early, tender So Many People. (And I assume that recurring lyrical references to “rolling along,” apart from revealing a taste for internal irony, are a homage to Sondheim’s own time-reversal musical.)

                But, as a composer, Brown also goes a very individual and encouraging way. He wrote Songs for a New World and the score for Parade, but this is a huge advance. For one thing, it’s the first theatrical song cycle to tell a coherent story. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Tell Me on a Sunday hardly counts, and anyway it was a staged concert piece. For another: Forget about Rent, tear out your Hair, cast a pitying look back at They’re Playing Our Song, which had a faintly similar theme - this is the first time that a contemporary pop sound has been made to work dramatically.

                The score is eclectic but unified. Some of the songs rock, a couple are countrified, and there is an overall obeisance to the ethic of the singer-songwriter, but Brown never once resorts to the spineless generalities that the pop world takes for profundity. Everything, musically as well as verbally, is specific to these people and this narrative. He has also written his own orchestrations, in which a cello sound takes unwonted and haunting precedence.

                They are superbly played here, by a chamber group under the direction of Marek Norman. Daryl Cloran’s staging could be more helpful in providing a context for each number, but he seems to have led his actors straight to the heart of the material. Blythe Wilson starts out angry, just as she did when singing Surabaya Johnny in the last year’s Happy End. That was a mistake; it left her nowhere to go. Here her fury is a devastated, and devastating, beginning from which she rebuilds herself: fiercely, charmingly, humorously, and - at the end, as a hopeful Juliet in braids - heartbreakingly. Her performance, if I can trust my CD speakers, has more edge than her predecessor’s in New Yor; Tyley Ross’, on the same evidence, has less. He is a capering kid, not too believable as an intellectual, and his diction can be distressingly muddy, but he has his own way of getting at the character. He presents a naturally selfish guy, who still has a searing capacity to care. And he too can be funny. Sets (Kelly Wolf) and lighting (Kevin Lamotte) are neutral but undistracting.

                The show repeats itself a little, and it leaves out things we would like to know. But it offers 80 minutes of undiluted pleasure. This is the best evening in the Toronto theatre since No Man’s Land. It is the best evening in the Toronto musical theatre since … I honestly don’t know how to finish that sentence but whatever landmark I am searching for dates back way beyond the last five years.

The Last Five Years