By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
Composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown has won multiple Tony Awards for his brilliant compositions and, most especially, for his tender ballads. First noted for his 1995 production of Songs for a New World, Brown later received critical acclaim for Parade, which told the story of convicted rapist and murderer Leo Franks, a sensationalized case that resonated in national headlines more than a 100 years ago.
Brown also has penned 13, a groundbreaking Broadway musical with a cast composed entirely of teenagers centered about (what else?), but an upcoming bar mitzvah. But, his most recent and biggest success was The Bridges of Madison County, the musical for which he took home Tony Awards three years ago for both best orchestration and best score.
Back in 2002, though, just after his initial success with Parade, and after his own failed marriage, Brown wrote The Last Five Years, which details the story of a man and a woman, who each recount their relationship from different perspectives.
Meredith Owens plays the part of Cathy, a struggling actress who catches the eye of an up and coming writer, Jamie, played by Adair Watkins. Both actors have exceptional voices for this work, which can possess many different degrees of difficulty in its execution.
Most important to note is that each character has his or her own emotional arc. Cathy tells her story from the end of the relationship after the marriage has failed, while Jamie recounts the story of their love and breakup from when they first meet five years before. She moves back in time from the present, while he starts in the past and moves towards the most recent past.
When the couple meets and sing together for the first time, they are getting married, a point when their love is at its greatest and most expressive peak.
This unusual method of storytelling that Brown employs is punctuated by beautiful moving melodies and some humorous songs like his “Shiksa Goddess” or “A Summer in Ohio” with lyrics like
“I could have a mansion on the hill,
I could lease a villa in Seville
But it wouldn’t be as nice as a summer in Ohio
With a gay midget named Karl, playing Tevye and Porgy”
But where Brown truly excels is in plaintive ballads like “Still Hurting” and “Nobody Needs To Know” where the characters cry out in their pain and distress as the relationship implodes.
The small and intimate nature of the ensemble that accompanies the couple adds to the sentimentality of the work and brings the audience more closely into the delicate dance being played on stage by the actors.
Michael McKelvey does double duty as he acts as both director and music director for this little jewel of a musical that is very true to the intent of the original that played off-Broadway 15 years ago. It’s a beautiful little piece that resonates longer than its hour and 20-minute duration.
Don’t forget to bring a hanky or some Kleenex. These perfomers will bring a tear to your eyes.
The Last Five Years closed on November 19 at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré.