Tortured emotional wanderings melting into song inhabit a strangely-constructed modern world inside the Off-Broadway Theater this weekend.
Jason Robert Brown plunges the depths of his own failed relationship in his many-faceted song cycle “The Last Five Years.” The current incarnation directed by John Hansen-Brevetti ’07 tackles this problematic work with two talented signers, a handful of concepts and an almost breathless reverence.
The show follows the path of the five-year relationship between Jamie (Jesse Obbink ’09), a rising young writer who is a thin cover for Brown, and Cathy (Felicia Ricci ’08), a struggling actress, also a thin veil for the composer’s ex-wife. After the show’s Illinois premiere five years ago, Brown’s ex-wife sued to have elements of the show changed, claiming they revealed private details of their relationship and therefore violated the terms of their divorce. While the musical does offer Brown’s typically heart-stirring orchestrations and clever lyricism, its resemblance to real life only occurs in passing moments, at least in this production. The plot’s lack of continuity makes it better suited for a cabaret style staging, and at times the show feels lost in the rather cavernous OBT.
Taking a page from one of his musical heroes, Stephen Sondheim, Brown decides that all those “normal” musicals about love and relationships are passe, so he decides to make it “modern” by twisting with the chronology. Not be outdone by Sondheim’s musical in reverse “Merrily We Roll Along,” Brown constructs “The Last Five Years” with Cathy in rewind and Jamie in fast-forward.
Cathy opens the show with the post-traumatic breakup song “Still Hurting,” while the first time we hear Jamie is with the Jew-Gentile relationship anthem “Shiksa Goddess” right after his first date. All of the songs mostly fit into these “stage of relationship” categories, providing a convenient outline to refer back to when trying to piece the lack of plot into a coherent story.
This production shines when the songs and the singers are allowed to stand alone without the interference of characters or story. While the idea to incorporate two dancers into the staging is certainly an interesting concept, all it really succeeds in accomplishing is to highlight the awkward lack of staging of the main characters.
While the staging bits are often well constructed, they never hang together to create a real show. Helping to make up for the lack of theatrical coherency, the incorporation of a filmed wedding sequence into the background of a few of the songs adds a pleasant layer to the otherwise simple and stark modernistic set designed by Eric Bloom ’08. The film proves useful again during “The Schmuel Song,” an allegorical number intended to inspire Cathy that makes little sense until it’s almost over. The many costume changes, designed by Avital Rutenberg Shoenberg ’09, help to differentiate between events in the play but seem almost unnecessary given the lack of an anchored world and the starkly modernistic set.
The production is carried by the strength of the voices well cast in the two roles. Whatever they may lack in naturalistic movement they make up for in the ability to belt it out. Ricci seems to wear her character lightly until she finally lets loose in the audition song “Climbing Uphill.” Her comic timing is perfect and makes up for some rather awkward staging later.
Obbink grows more into his character as the story unfolds and only suffers from trying to sell the number a little too hard.
A cleverly assembled if rag-tag orchestra of six instruments directed by Zak Sandler ’08 carries the burden of Brown’s orchestrations with panache. Unusually for a traditional staging of a musical, the orchestra remains on stage for the entire piece, mostly visible through the planks of the set.
The strength of Brown’s work still shows through the rather convoluted attempts to explore some of the themes present in the work. The half-hearted attempts to incorporate dance, onstage symbols, and awkward bits of staging only detract from the heart of the work, which is the simple desire to tell a story in song. The emotional truth of the work still peeks through the distracting, fragmented concepts that appear to be attempts at artistic depth.