BWW Reviews: Joy and Pain in THE LAST FIVE YEARS at Portland Center Stage
Everyone has a favorite musical, one that they respond to viscerally, in a way that defies logic. You can't explain why you love that show, but you love it, you see it every time it opens, you debate the casting, you imagine what the perfect version of that show would be. (Well, there are a handful of people who don't like musicals at all. I don't want to think about how drab their lives must be.) For me, no matter how many other great musicals have been written since the beginning of time, my favorite is Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years. It's a nearly impeccable piece of material, sixteen songs that portray both sides of a difficult, contentious, and ultimately unsuccessful marriage. I've seen four different productions (and a film version is on the way), and each has been flawed, but I still adore the material.
The Last Five Years is a simple idea executed in a complex way. Jamie is an aspiring novelist who becomes successful - very successful. Cathy is an aspiring actress whose career does not take off. They meet, they fall in love, they marry, and the differences in their personalities, combined with their different levels of accomplishment in their careers, eventually drive them apart. The complexity is that the actor playing Jamie tells his story from beginning to end, while the actress playing Cathy tells her story in reverse. The juxtaposition is what makes the musical unique and beautiful: Cathy begins the show by singing the aching ballad "Still Hurting," bemoaning the end of the marriage, but this is followed by Jamie's explosion of joy at meeting the girl of his dreams, his "Shiksa Goddess." Every moment of joy is paired with a moment of pain - and isn't that exactly how you think back on your failed relationships?
With the exception of a couple of short spoken bits, the piece is all sung, about ninety minutes with no intermission. And what music! Brown himself is a gifted vocalist and pianist, and his music isn't easy to play or sing. (I've heard Brown himself in concert struggle to get through some of his own material.) There are tricky, fast lyrics, melodies that range all over the scale, and every song contains dramatic subtext that gives the actors something to play instead of just singing pretty tunes. It's a daunting piece of work, and I admire anyone brave enough to take on the roles. The original (2002) cast album is so popular that anyone who does the show is going to get compared to those performances, and how do you live up to a cast album?
Portland Center Stage's production is a mixed bag, sad to say. As I said recently in my review of Third Rail's Midsummer, a two-character play is dependent on the cast, and when half of the cast isn't up to the challenge, it makes for a rough evening. Jamie is a likable jerk, a guy who we have to find charming and delightful when we ifirst meet him or else we're not going to be able to forgive him for some of the things that happen later. Drew Harper is a handsome kid with a fine singing voice, but he doesn't have the inner life to make Jamie interesting. He hits the notes musically but not emotionally. I didn't believe him as a novelist, I didn't believe he loved his wife, and I didn't believe he cared about anything except getting through each song, as if checking them off a list. There were some decent moments - he made my least favorite song, the fable-like "The Story of Schmuel," into a highlight - but if you're going to play the lead in a love story, you have to be able to show love, and I didn't see that from him. Jamie's declaration of love for Cathy late in the show, as they're trying to save the marriage, is the lovely "If I Didn't Believe in You," and Harper barked it out as if giving orders to a military squadron.
Luckily for us, we had Merideth Kaye Clark as Cathy. Clark is one of the best musical actresses around, period, and I've watched her in four shows (plus a solo concert) over the past year and fallen in love with her every time. In the wrong hands, Cathy, jealous of her husband's success, can come across as whiny and demanding, but Clark made her lovable, charming, and determined, and even at the darkest moments in the story she made you root for her. And when she cut loose, as in "I Can Do Better Than That," Cathy's declaration of love for Jamie, I just wanted her to keep singing and smiling and never, ever stop. Due to the construction of the show, the two actors only play one scene together - the centerpiece of the show, "The Next Ten Minutes," which depicts their wedding - and just for that moment Harper came to life, facing Clark and singing to her with love. But for the rest of the evening, it was Clark carrying us along as her character grew happier and happier (due to the reverse chronology) and when she smiled I could feel everyone in the theater smiling along with her.
Director Nancy Keystone didn't seem to trust the material. She added tons of props - which slowed down a show that needs to keep moving - and loads of costume changes. The pianist often had to keep vamping while one actor cleared a set piece or an armful of props, and the other rushed on after yet another quick change. The musical is very simple and doesn't need to be so literal. (Did we really need a display case showing Jamie's novel? And did we need to have it dragged on twice?) The set was minimalist, the cast is only two, and yet it felt like we were spending as much time watching the actors move the set pieces around as we did hearing their story.
As stated above, Brown's music is insanely complex, and most times I've seen the show it was accompanied by a small combo. Here we had just a solo pianist, the gifted (and tireless) Eric Little, who gave the actors just what they needed, filled in the gaps where required, and played the complex melodies with great sensitivity and enormous energy. He didn't need any help; his brilliance filled the house. If you love musicals, you should see this production; you won't be completely satisfied, but you'll understand, I hope, why The Last Five Years is so many people's favorite show. And you will not forgive yourself for missing Merideth Kaye Clark in the latest of a string of brilliant performances. I won't forgive you either.