This theater image released by The Hartman group shows Adam Kant[auth] or, left, and Betsy Wolfe during a performance of “The Last Five Years,” in New York. (AP Photo/The Hartman Group, Joan Marcus)
NEW YORK (AP) — It’s all about timing, we often say about relationships. Usually, we’re talking about the moment we meet someone. They might be THE one. But are we ready?
But there’s also the question of how fast each person in a relationship is moving through life. And if they’re moving at different speeds, can they still move together? That’s the question composer Jason Robert Brown explores in “The Last Five Years,” which opened Tuesday in a poignant revival at the Second Stage Theatre, a decade after its first off-Broadway run.
The title refers to the marriage of Jamie and Cathy, two appealing, twenty-something New Yorkers who set out on their romantic journey full of hope, optimism and vigor. Obviously, things change.
But what stands out about this musical dissection of a relationship — call it a He-sang, She-sang love story gone sour — is the storytelling device Brown chooses. Both characters tell, or rather sing, the tale, but Jamie starts at the beginning and Cathy at the end. Their stories mesh only in the middle. And then they move off again.
The original production starred two rising musical theater stars: Norbert Leo Butz, who has since won two Tonys, and Sherie Rene Scott. This time it also features rising musical performers: a soulful and intense Adam Kantor as Jamie, and the sweet-voiced Betsy Wolfe. The composer, Brown, does double duty as director.
It goes without saying that this production comes with a lot of built-in good will, since “The Last Five Years,” despite running only a few months, has developed quite a following in its afterlife, becoming a staple of regional and school productions. To sense the affection for it, one needed only to witness the curtain calls at a recent preview. As the audience cheered, a man called out repeatedly: “Thank you! Thank you!” Kantor responded: “You’re welcome.”
In the beginning, it seems a little unbalanced, as Jamie gets the energetic, life-embracing numbers, and Cathy the sad ones. She’s mourning the end, as she tells us in “Still Hurting,” but he’s in the throes of love, of course — and this nice Jewish boy is thrilled that he’s found his “Shiksa Goddess.” The clever lyrics have him breaking his mother’s heart — not to mention that “the JCC of Spring Valley is shaking and crumbling to the ground.”
But it’s not just newfound love that is making Jamie feel, thrillingly, like he’s on a runaway train. His career as a novelist is also on fire. “The Atlantic Monthly’s printing my first chapter,” he gloats, in “Moving Too Fast.”
Meanwhile, Cathy, an aspiring actress, is struggling to find herself. At a book-signing party, she sits next to a pile of his books. But at least, she tells herself, “Look what he can do. And I’m a part of that.” She points to the inscription to her in Jamie’s book. That’s going to have to be enough.
Wolfe has a lovely soprano voice, and she shines in funny songs like “A Summer in Ohio,” where she’s missing Jamie and going slowly batty — “forty miles east of Cincinnati” — or in “Climbing Uphill,” about the trials of auditioning with “two hundred girls who are younger and thinner than me, who have already gone to the gym.”
As time goes on — or backwards — it’s Cathy who becomes light and upbeat, and Jamie who is suffering the decline of their union. He’s funny as he sings of the challenges of resisting temptation — i.e. the young women at all those book parties. But Brown’s most painful songs for Jamie — the ones that hit home the most — are his darkest. First, an argument: “If I didn’t believe in you,” he sings, “We wouldn’t be having this fight.”
Even sadder: “Nobody Needs to Know,” the song in which Jamie tries to rationalize an extra-marital affair. At first, since Jamie and Cathy never sing to each other, we think the bed partner he’s addressing so sweetly is her. Then we realize it’s someone else.
It’s frustrating, sometimes, to never see the actors truly addressing each other. But of course, they were never on the same track in the first place. Their timing was, truly and fatally, off.