Ambitious, Polished `Last 5 Years'
April 28, 2003
By MALCOLM JOHNSON, Courant Theater Critic
Jason Robert Brown's "The Last 5 Years" traces the end, the beginning and
the in-between ups and downs of a successful novelist and struggling actress
- all in mostly wonderful songs over an intermission-less hour and a half.
As revived by TheaterWorks close upon the off-Broadway production at the
Minetta Lane Theatre, this bittersweet love story proves sometimes exhilarating,
sometimes a bit irksome. Brown is telling an all-too-familiar story, and
the man, Jamie, is less than likable as played by Joe Cassidy. Even the powers
of Brown's song cycle, which unfolds in a dazzling palette of musical colors,
cannot quite carry the evening - though Sally Wilfert breathes life and variety
into her Cathy from her opening lament, "Still Hurting," to her final duet
Though it has only two characters, "The Last 5 Years" proves an ambitious
production for the cellar theater on Pearl Street, with five musicians offstage
under the direction of the Hartt School's Michael Morris. And with Rob Ruggiero's
increasing experience with musicals, the story of Jamie and Cathy comes across
as a highly polished, finely paced vocal pas de deux.
The settings by Luke Hegel-Cantarella, who also designed the costumes, are
minimal but finely atmospheric under the moody lighting by Marcus Doshi.
Set pieces, including a Central Park rowboat, suggest the places where the
couple come together, or go to do their pondering alone.
The two numbers that open the show illustrate the contrasts in Brown's writing.
"Still Hurting" has an almost classical feeling, with its plaintive interweavings
of bass and violin, and the heartfelt simplicity of the penultimate line:
"Once the foundation's cracked."
Next comes a humorous defining moment for Jamie, "Shiksa Goddess." This is
a jazzy, clever song full of ironic Jewish references - "I've had Shabbas
dinners/on Friday nights/With ev'ry Shapiro/ in Washington Heights," with
some folky fiddle licks and a driving piano. Morris' playing brings some
of the energy that Brown himself displays in leading the country band in
his current "Urban Cowboy."
The rest of "The Last 5 Years" feels like a scrapbook of memories, with a
scattered chronology. In the "Shiksa" number, Jamie has just met the blond
Venus of his dreams - "I'm your Hebrew slave." In Catherine's next song,
"See I'm Smiling," the five years have passed, Jamie is "the savior of writing"
at 28, and Cathy has grown bitter. "Moving too Fast" is a raglike flashback,
in which Jamie enumerates the happiness and alarm at his success. And so
it goes, back and forth in time, with upbeat moments and more downbeat ones.
Brown, who shot to fame with "Songs for a New World," then won a well-deserved
Tony Award for the too-short-lived "Parade," a spectacular Lincoln Center
collaboration with Harold Prince and Alfred Uhry, seems to be telling a semi-autobiographical
tale here. In this sense, it resembles Stephen Sondheim's "Company," though
it is far less humorous. And, while much of "The Last 5 Years" takes place
in New York, there are also forays to Ohio, where Cathy vainly pursues her
Wilfert gives Cathy resilience and brightness in all of her songs, even those
of regret. She projects radiance and an energy that makes the woman especially
engaging. The role of Jamie is more difficult to put across and Cassidy's
vocal delivery needs more shadings, more mocking irony. Perhaps over the
run of the show, this will emerge.
Whatever the drawbacks in this revival, "The Last 5 Years" offers Hartford-area
theatergoers a chance to lend their ears to one of the rising stars in the
musical theater today. TheaterWorks' Steve Campo deserves applause for obtaining
the rights to this cutting-edge show so quickly, and for producing it with
such thorough professionalism.
"The Last 5 Years" continues through May 25 at the Hutensky Theater, 233
Pearl St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays
at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m, Saturdays at 2:30 and 8 p.m., Sundays at
2:30 p.m. Tickets: $30 to $40. Box office: 860-727-4027.
The Last Five Years