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 with Jamie.

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 acting career.

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