Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years has achieved an almost mythical status in the canon of American musical theater. Despite a very short-lived original off-Broadway production, featuring then-rising theater stars Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott, it has become one of the most frequently produced musicals around the world, with one of the best cast albums ever recorded.
Countless community, high school, summer stock, and BFA honors thesis productions later, this chamber musical is back in New York, receiving its first-ever major revival courtesy of Second Stage Theatre. Starring first-rate singing actors Adam Kantor and Betsy Wolfe, this revival, directed by Brown, has a lot to prove. Is The Last Five Years the best musical ever written, or merely a great song cycle that doesn't work on stage? Can anyone possibly live up to the memories of Butz and Scott, who will forever be associated with the material? Just maybe.
Brown's semi-autobiographical piece explores the five-year relationship between Jamie Wellerstein (Kantor), a Jewish wunderkind novelist rising in prominence, and Cathy Hiatt (Wolfe), a goyishe would-be actress. In a nifty — albeit occasionally confusing — twist, Brown tells the story from both perspectives, with Cathy moving backwards from the end of their relationship to the start and Jamie going from their courtship to divorce. Only once in the show as written does the pair actually intersect, when they get engaged and wed, though they actually intersect a handful of times in this production, which opens with a kiss and features a smattering of longing stares.
On paper, The Last Five Years has always been skewed in Jamie's favor (and in Daisy Prince's original production, Butz played this up to the hilt). Jamie is the successful one, with engaging and varied music and a distinct arc, whereas Cathy is a wet blanket from finish to start, singing plaintive ballads about how much she loves Jamie, even if she can't see that he's a narcissist whose one true love is himself.
How striking, then, that this revival is dominated by Wolfe's star-making performance. Wolfe is everything one could want in a Cathy: charming and vivacious, goofy and self-deprecating (her "When You Come Home to Me" is a work of art in storytelling through song). More importantly, Wolfe manages to make the character human; her Cathy is ultimately heartbreaking to watch because of her extreme adoration of Jamie, which makes the ending (or in this case, the beginning) that much sadder. And Wolfe possesses such impressive control that she can sing clearly even as she applies lipstick, one of many hilarious moments found in her "Summer in Ohio" — a high point of the evening.
As Jamie, Kantor chooses a darker, more demure route, with a quiet exuberance during "Shiksa Goddess," appropriate gravitas on "Nobody Needs to Know," and an intriguing iciness for "If I Didn't Believe in You" that sheds new light on the song. This subdued quality is not always right for the character. But Kantor does nicely chart the arc of the relationship, even when a song like "A Miracle Would Happen," where Jamie talks about the temptations of other women, suddenly stretches credibility with such an adoring Cathy.
They're backed, on Derek McLane's simple set of dropdown windows and sliding platforms, by an impressively tight six-player band using the original instrumentation of piano, two cellos, violin, celesta, guitar, and bass, the latter pair of which are strummed by two of the show's original players. Jon Weston's sound design impressively allows every instrument to be heard and doesn't overpower the performers. Jeff Croiter's lighting is typical of a rock musical, while Jeff Sugg's projections are distracting and Emily Rebholz's costumes generally unflattering.
Brown has directed a sensitive, if a bit too literal, production, and while it does not solve all of the show's problems, namely the fact that it's hard to tell whether Jamie and Cathy were ever actually in love, Wolfe and Kantor are well on their way to overcoming that roadblock, even if they aren't entirely there yet. Most importantly, this good-natured staging makes a case for The Last Five Years as a show, not just a song cycle that works better on disc.