`Five' is a marriage made in catchy songs

Composer, cast, orchestra shine

Theater Review

September 14, 2005|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Although it's only September, The Last Five Years just might be the best 90 minutes you can spend in a theater this season.

Receiving its Baltimore premiere at Everyman Theatre, this modest, two-person musical showcases the abilities of an extraordinary songwriter as well as a talented cast and orchestra.

Jason Robert Brown has written only three musicals - Parade, which won him the 1999 Tony Award for best score; a revue, Songs for a New World (produced at the Spotlighters Theatre in July); and The Last Five Years. But judging from these three, he may be the most impressive young Broadway composer to come along since Stephen Sondheim.

The score of The Last Five Years, which is told almost entirely in song, straddles the line between pop and musical theater. The songs have strong narratives, strong (often humorous) points of view and strong, hummable melodies.

The plot linking these songs is an account of a failed romance - with a twist. The bride, Cathy, tells her story in reverse, from breakup to first date; the groom, Jamie, tells his in chronological order. The characters alternate songs, sharing their only duet in the middle, at their wedding.

Gimmicky as this may sound, it's a gimmick that makes thematic sense. Cathy and Jamie are so patently wrong for each other, they are almost never in the same place.

While it bears some similarities to Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along, the show's topsy-turvy structure - and almost concertlike presentation - is far from that of a traditional musical. At Everyman, to keep theatergoers from becoming confused, director Vincent M. Lancisi, set designer Thomas F. Donahue and lighting designer Jay A. Herzog illuminate numbers in picture frames to indicate which of the five years applies to each song.

The actors - Josh Davis and Betsy Morgan - have a tougher task. All of their songs concern their relationship, but they are rarely face to face. Presumably, these two shared a powerful attraction, but we only see that one side at a time.

Yet it is indicative of the skill of these two Everyman newcomers and of Lancisi's direction that we never doubt the fervor with which Jamie, a Jewish novelist, and Cathy, a Gentile actress, launch into their relationship.

Davis' Jamie infuses the hilarious "Shiksa Goddess" with the ebullience of unbridled infatuation. His delivery of "Moving Too Fast" not only gives him a chance to show off his powerful pop-tinged voice, but also displays choreography that's a cross between the MTV moves of a rock singer and the swift grace of a skateboarder. Later, Davis revels in the versatility of a holiday number called "The Schmuel Song," adding Yiddish inflections to his portrayal of an elderly tailor and comic insistence to his depiction of a clock, which goads the tailor to take a chance on happiness.

Morgan's performance has less variety, but her character's heartbreak is penetrating when she opens the show singing, "Still Hurting." She also convincingly and amusingly depicts the angst of the audition process, singing what's really going on in Cathy's head - "Why did I pick these shoes?/Why did I pick this song?/Why did I pick this career?"- as she tries out for an acting job in Ohio.

Musical director James R. Fitzpatrick's polished six-member, string-laden ensemble provides beautifully balanced support to the singers and is also precise enough to point up the score's recurring musical motifs. The melody underlying Jamie's exuberant lyric, "I keep rollin' on," for example, is strikingly similar to Cathy's melancholy, "I'm still hurting" - a musical reiteration of the central theme of two seemingly simpatico people who are actually in very different places emotionally.

In the end, who's to blame? Cathy, who couldn't deal with a husband whose career skyrocketed while hers stalled? Or Jamie, who started thinking about other women immediately after the wedding? Or was their union simply not meant to be?

The Last Five Years will probably spark some spirited discussions among theatergoers. While you're debating, don't be surprised if Brown's tunes keep echoing in your head. A musical with catchy songs and a central relationship that stirs debate. To put a spin on one of the show's lyrics: "What could be better than that?"

The Last Five Years

Where: Everyman Theatre

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; matinees at 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Oct. 16

Tickets: $18-$28

Call: 410-752-2208

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