Ken Mandelbaum

It was not so long ago that a great deal of press attention was devoted to a much vaunted group of new composers for the theatre, most of whom were about to have major work produced in New York, and already had Audra McDonald devoting discs to their songs.

But while Adam Guettel’s only narrative musical, Floyd Collins, has enjoyed numerous regional productions, it was seen only briefly off-Broadway six years ago. Michael John LaChiusa made his Broadway debut with two shows in a single season, but neither was generally well-received or successful, although his The Wild Party continues to haunt. Ricky Ian Gordon was represented by the obtuse Dream True, and his work seems most like the art song that this group has sometimes been accused of providing. Some of us had come to wonder if these talents were actually going to be the future of musical theatre, and why others (like the established Ahrens and Flaherty) were getting less attention than this group was receiving.

Jason Robert Brown not only got to Broadway but won a Tony for his Parade score (partly by default–the competition was Footloose, The Civil War, and Twelfth Night, the latter largely incidental music, composed by another member of the group, Jeanine Tesori). Brown’s previous New York show, Songs for a New World, was a calling-card collection; his third local outing, The Last Five Years, is, like Songs, off-Broadway and directed by Daisy Prince, daughter of Hal Prince, who staged Parade.

Parade was not entirely workable, and even Brown’s contribution had its shortcomings. But a great deal of the score remains quite exciting, and it marked Brown as the most accessible of the new group, the one writing in the most traditional patterns and providing the most satisfyingly soaring melody.

As one who enjoyed Parade in spite of its flaws, I was eager for the next Brown show, and he’s sole author of The Last Five Years, which had its premiere last year at the Northlight Theatre in Skokie, Illinois in suburban Chicago. Where Parade was huge, The Last Five Years is a highly personal, two-character chamber piece. It was to have been presented by Lincoln Center Theater, producer of Parade, but has instead come to us as a commercial off-Broadway production at the Minetta Lane Theatre.

The 85-minute, intermissionless piece relates the five-year relationship between Jewish novelist Jamie and Catholic musical actress Cathy. The conceit of the evening has Cathy beginning the story at the end, after their separation, and moving, during the course of the show, back to happier times; Jamie starts at the beginning, having just met and been entranced by this “shiksa goddess.” With the exception of phone calls and a book reading, the evening is entirely sung, and consists of alternating solos; sometimes one sings to the other, or the two are onstage together, but the wedding sequence, “The Next Ten Minutes,” is the only time they actually share a number.

While the show’s roots as a song cycle remain visible, the device is nicely sustained: We watch as Jamie becomes swept up in a burgeoning career, devoting more of his time to agents and editors than to his wife, and eventually drifting into infidelity. Cathy moves from the pain of the break-up back to a time when Jamie was able to help her deal with dispiriting auditions, seasons of stock in Ohio, and the fact that his career is thriving while hers is not.

The Last Five Years is said to be at least semi-autobiographical; there have been reports of objections from Brown’s former wife, with the character of Cathy no longer the Irish Kathleen that she was in Chicago. How close the show is to what Brown experienced is ultimately irrelevant, but he’s clearly writing about something he has lived through.

His Last Five Years songs are frequently lovely; the lyrics, whether wistful or funny, are intelligent, and the melodies, whether plangent or astringent, are attractive. Notable among the high-quality items are Jamie’s Christmas-gift folk parable of encouragement, “The Schmuel Song”; Cathy’s “I Can Do Better Than That” (driving to her hometown with her fiancé); her “A Part of That” (adjusting to her husband’s newfound success); and the wedding scene. And Brown’s orchestrations for an ensemble of six musicians (including Brown as conductor/pianist) are handsome.

As befits the subject matter, Brown is here working in a contemporary style, employing a musical vocabulary embracing pop and cabaret material (indeed, several of these numbers are bound to be snapped up by club singers). Perhaps because Parade was set in a time and place–Atlanta in 1913–alien to the composer, it forced an unusually rich, sometimes operatic sound from Brown that was more distinctive and powerful. But if the material here is stylistically less adventurous, it’s further evidence of a significant talent.

A bigger problem in The Last Five Years is that, while the opposite-direction concept keeps us interested, and Prince has kept things flowing smoothly, the characters aren’t notably gripping or sympathetic. There’s nothing especially striking about their story, so we’re not greatly moved. It’s skilled work applied to unremarkable (albeit universal) subject matter.

But The Last Five Years is fortunate to feature two of the most high-powered young musical performers around. Norbert Leo Butz (repeating his Chicago role) and Sherie René Scott (in a part done in Chicago by Lauren Kennedy) took over leads in Broadway’s Rent; since then, he’s been Emcee on the Cabaret national tour and most recently had the sole triumph in Thou Shalt Not, while Scott was superb in Kander and Ebb’s Over & Over and a riot as Amneris in Aida. Ingratiating actors, wonderful singers, they make a good deal of The Last Five Years more engaging than it might otherwise be. Butz takes the stage as commandingly as in Thou Shalt Not, and Scott finds ways to enhance her numbers with her singular comic gifts.

Designer Beowulf Boritt has supplied a large, suspended disc offering a Bob Crowley-style upended view of the seating and floral arrangements for a wedding; there are some suspended packing cartons stage left, indicating the end of the relationship. And there’s a turntable which brings on, among other things, a bed, a pile of books, an Ohio pier, some miniature cars, and a rowboat in which Butz is seated for the wedding scene; after Butz’s Thou Shalt Not murder in a similar vehicle just a few months ago, this could get laughs–or a rousing chorus of “Tug Boat”–with the wrong crowd.

A show that Brown probably needed to get out of his system, this is an accomplished piece; one would like it to be more surprising and affecting, and one looks forward to Brown working again on a broader canvas. But for those interested in charting contemporary musical theatre composing and performing talent, The Last Five Years is required viewing.