note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi
Jamie Wellerstein … Tally Sessions
Catherine Hiatt … Becca Ayers
Conductor/Piano … Paul S. Katz
Bass … John Styklunas
Guitar … Dominic Civiello
Violin … Peter Hughes
Cello … (alternating:) Sam Ou / Jennifer Miniich / Agnieszka Dziubak / Catherine Stephan
John Robert Brown’s two-character THE LAST FIVE YEARS is another of those hip, anthem-heavy musicals so un-dear to my heart --- I keep trying to like them but end up resisting them. Using fourteen criss-crossing songs and a bit of monologue, Mr. Brown charts the rise and fall of a five-year relationship between Jamie, an aspiring writer, and Catherine, a would-be actress. Jamie makes it; Catherine does not; their marriage fails (Catherine’s vulnerability is repeatedly stressed yet the role demands a voice that can shatter glass). There is also a gimmick: Jamie starts at the beginning while Catherine alternates in reverse --- thus, the evening concludes with Jamie moving out while Catherine sees him off after a dreamy first date. Mr. Brown has been hailed as one of Mr. Sondheim’s heirs; Mr. Brown's hailers are accurate on one account: his lyrics are more memorable than his music which comes at you as cast iron in all shapes and sizes as if he was too busy at his forge to notice how everything sounded when welded together --- on the night I attended, the SpeakEasy audience, made up of all ages, politely applauded.
There are moments, though: some of Mr. Brown’s lyrics still stick with me, especially, “I will not fail so you can be comfortable, Cathy / I will not lose because you can’t win”. There is a lovely, wordless moment when Cathy shyly, sweetly walks rings around a smitten Jamie which speaks volumes as to why men fall in love with women: because they are beautiful and timeless; those actresses weary of auditioning with A CHORUS LINE’s “Dance: Ten, Looks: Three” might consider switching to Catherine’s “Climbing Uphill” which pits her inner angst against the cheesy number she is performing before producers; the final image --- Jamie and Catherine slowly revolving on a turntable --- is sad and autumnal. However THE LAST FIVE YEARS was produced in New York, Eric C. Engel should have staged it as the song-cycle that it is, placed its orchestra in full view of the audience instead of sealing them up and to have ordered his singers to never leave the stage for an instant --- during the dead silence of the blackouts, for example, Catherine’s heels go clop! clop! clop! whenever she races into the wings for a lightning-quick costume change.
Tally Sessions and Becca Ayers are good as the Proustian couple --- “good” in the sense that they can stretch their vocal chords out on Mr. Brown’s rack for an hour and a half --- though Ms. Ayers is clearly drawing on her collateral rather than her interest (her soaring upper register becomes grainy, after awhile); meanwhile, Mr. Sessions, his mouth barely open, pours out a steady Niagara from somewhere inside him and sounds as fresh at the end as he does at the beginning.