The Last Five Years, book, lyrics and music by Jason Robert Brown. Directed by Anders Cato.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Weíll never be complete."
First, says the rule book on asking God for a favor, praise him. Next tell the tale and thank God all along the way. Then ask for something and end quickly with praise in advance. It may work for prayer/requests, although not often I suppose, but it rarely ever works in the theater. Jason Robert Brown has written four musicals (Parade, The Last Five Years, Urban Cowboy and 13) that Iím aware of and in each of them he follows this course of action: praise, beg, thank and praise again. Itís a decent formula. It just doesnít work.
And it really doesnít work in the current production of "The Last Five Years" at the Berkshire Theatre Festival. Hereís the premise: a couple examine their relationship and marriage over the course of the last five years from meeting to divorce. They sing songs in turn - first her, then him. At the end we know as much or as little as we assume we knew at the beginning and we understand very little about their relationship.
As in others of his shows, the hero is Jewish - Jamie Wellerstein played by Paul Anthony Stewart. The woman he falls in love with is not Jewish Ė WASP Catherine Hiatt played by Julie Reiber. When produced off-Broadway in 2002 the show ran for exactly two months and starred Leo Norbert Butz and Sherie Rene Scott. It also spawned a law suit when the authorís ex-wife sued him for custody of her own life; apparently his show too closely mirrored their own marriage.
Itís always an odd thing to discover the art as history/history as art aspects of a theatrical work. We are usually asked to take sides in a stage dispute, but here there is no involving of the audience in such a way. The two simply tell their stories in song, he starting at the beginning of their affair; she working back to that incident from their final moment together as he walks out the door. In the course of time they each sing fourteen different songs. Frankly, they are both so musically unpleasant at times and so unrealistically characterless that no sympathy goes pouring out to either, leaving us with a debacle of a musical. It sounds a bit humorless as I re-read what I wrote, but the truth is there is some humor in here, just not enough and not genuine enough to be anything other as seen through the lightbulb that glares down on both characters. Pale and colorless it is hard to grasp what theyíre singing about half the time.
The songs are basically inseparable from their characters and what else I can say is this: I could almost never hear, or at least understand, the character of Jamie while I could hear every word sung by Catherine. That should make me more sympathetic to one but it didnít. It just aggravated me. So, make me a promise: no being sympathetic here, no taking sides!
With not liking the characters, and not truly appreciating the loud music, this is a hard show to enjoy. There are some fine character songs, nothing youíll hear Madonna wail out on or anyone arrange for jazz piano. High on my list to hear again somehow are his "The Schmuel Song" and her "A Summer in Ohio." Both tell narrative tales about somewhat interested, if odd, individuals.
In the course of untrue love, their paths cross for "The Next Ten Minutes" right in the middle of the five years examined here. While director Anders Cato has kept the pair relatively mobile, here he brings them together physically and we can almost comprehend the motives of young lovers when things begin for them. Cato has also placed multiple musical tools in their hands and kept them moving around the BTF stage with as much freedom as possible.
All of those efforts are not enough to make this a pleasant musical drama. Further, and this seems to be a trend at this theater nowadays, the show has been designed to obliterate active views of the sound stages. A large square box cuts off sightlines in Lee Savageís otherwise attractive set. For many years a false perspective has been used to create space that can be worked on and lit in. Letís vote now for false perspective again, a viewable show, visible to all.
Jeff Davis takes the role of lighting designer here and through his extraordinarily crafty eye he has managed to smoothly move the story along as light alters and changes, fades and remains. His crafty use of color, generally subtle but not always, illuminates the underside of each song. The costumes designed by Laurie Churba Kohn are fine. A movement consultant, Rachael Paine, has apparently coached the two on falling, jumping and other odd motions that crop up.
It doesnít add up to a hill of beans, however, when the material all of this production is hung on is merely gauze. This tale, told in this imaginative way, should reveal something likeable about its characters, but in this case that doesnít really happen. We just have two mismatched people who make themselves as testy and unbearable as possible.
I have to admire the courage of a theater company when they take up the cudgel for little known works. That is certainly the case here. Even the cast of two, with four musicians dressing up the set, makes this innovative 90 minutes without an intermission evening into something oddly unforgettable. But Iíd rather leave a musical humming a tune, or repeating a lyric phrase, instead of shaking my head saying "Why? Why?"
Julie Reiber as Catherine; photo provided
Paul Anthony Stewart as Jamie; photo provided
The Last Five Years; photo provided
The Last Five Years runs through July 10 at the Berkshire Theatre Festivalís main stage, located at 6 East Street in Stockbridge, MA. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-298-5576 or check their website at www.berkshiretheatre.org.