Ken Mandelbaum

Off-Broadway musicals continue to have a difficult time flourishing. True, Urinetown has survived its transfer to Broadway. But even with many good reviews, tick, tick….BOOM! and Bat Boy failed to thrive. And this season added a number of other titles which didn’t manage particularly good notices, and came and went quickly (Once Around the City, The Spitfire Grill, Reefer Madness, Summer of ’42).

The latest significant off-Broadway musical title is The Last Five Years, Jason Robert Brown’s two-character chamber piece about the five-year relationship between Jewish novelist Jamie and Gentile musical theatre actress Cathy. The 83-minute show tells its story almost entirely in song (almost all of them solos), and, as you’ve no doubt heard by now, the conceit of the piece is that Cathy begins the evening after the breakup, moving back in time to their early happiness, while Jamie begins at the beginning of the relationship, ending with the wistful parting.

The Last Five Years opened to mixed reviews; as was the case with Brown’s previous show, Parade, the New York Times voted against it. In my opening night review of The Last Five Years, I described Brown (who won a Tony for his Parade score) as a significant talent, fashioning perhaps the most accessibly melodic and appealing songs of the new group of theatre composers. I also mentioned that the characters and situations of The Last Five Years were unremarkable, so, even with two of the most abundantly gifted young musical theatre performers in charge of the proceedings, the evening wasn’t as emotionally gripping as one would have liked it to be.

But most of the score is beguiling; from the opening strains–a piano foreshadowing the melody of the final song–Brown’s material is quality stuff. The 76-minute cast recording (to be released by Sh-K-Boom on April 16) offers the score complete, cutting almost all spoken word (Jamie’s and Cathy’s phone calls to agents and to each other, Jamie’s book reading).

I’m particularly partial to three solos for Cathy, "A Part of That," "A Summer in Ohio," and "I Can Do Better Than That"; Jamie’s 7∏-minute Christmas parable "Schmuel’s Song"; the wedding sequence ("The Next Ten Minutes"); and the closing pairing of "Goodbye Until Tomorrow" and "I Could Never Rescue You." (Note that Jamie’s first number, referred to in the preview Playbill as "Jamie’s Song," has now found its obvious title, "Shiksa Goddess.") Brown is even adept at fashioning for Cathy an audition song ("When You Come Home to Me") that’s both attractive and a subtle comment on the genre (one suspects that several of the Last Five Years numbers could be destined for extensive duty as audition material). And Brown’s nicely textured orchestrations for six players are heard to even better advantage on disc.

Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott are formidable actors and wonderful singers, and their work here is pretty much beyond reproach. (If Scott is almost too distinctive, too fabulous to enact a struggling, oft-rejected performer, I’m not complaining.) Both are able to sustain lengthy, vocally demanding solos, and both record beautifully; Scott has already demonstrated that on the Aida cast album and a solo recital, but this is Butz’s first significant release (his other cast album from this season, Thou Shalt Not, is as yet unheard).

The show has something of the feel of a concept album or song cycle, so it works quite well as a recording, with one track flowing into the next without interruption. And because the score rather than the narrative is the thing in The Last Five Years, the piece may be even more at home on disc. Filled with music that’s likely to stick with you and that’s delivered by choice singers, The Last Five Years makes for a highly pleasurable, playable cast album.