Long Wharf Theatre has featured musicals in many of its recent seasons, from Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill to Ain’t Misbehavin’ to Ella to the non-musical play about one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century, Satcho at the Waldorf.
Sense a pattern there? Well, The Last Five Years, the show currently running at the theater, is not a musical about aging black jazz icons. It’s about young white contemporary New Yorkers, one of whom—Jamie, played here by Adam Halpin—proclaims his Jewishness loudly in his opening song, singing about the “Shiksa Goddess” he’s just met. Said goddess is a wholesome, hardworking blonde named Cathy (played by Katie Rose Clarke), who’s come to the city to seek fame and fortune.
These are the only two characters in the whole show, and nearly all the scenes are solos. If you already know about this much-produced, smartly economical show, you know that’s not the only interesting thing about it. Jamie and Cathy basically exist in different time zones. Just before Jamie is heard singing about meeting Cathy for the first time, there’s Cathy about breaking up with Jamie after a five-year relationship. The love songs and laments thus head in different directions: Jamie’s chronologically and Cathy’s anti-chronologically.
Jason Robert Brown, the musical theater multi-threat wunderkind who did the book, lyrics and music for this show, says he created The Last Five Years as an antidote to his grand-scale Broadway musical Parade (for which Alfred Uhry wrote the script). Size-wise, The Last Five Years is as trim as a musical can get: two performers and a six-piece band, though there is some indulgence in that there are two cellos in the ensemble. Content-wise, it’s dark, as most Jason Robert Brown projects are. Parade is about anti-Semitism, rape and capital punishment. Bridges of Madison County (which is just about to end its Broadway run) is about unrequited love. 13 is a feel-good coming of age show that happens to feature divorce, bullying, “being a geek” and muscular dystrophy. Songs for a New World, which like The Last Five Years could be described as a song cycle with theatrical flourishes, shares similar feelings: the choices and sacrifices you make when you’re young, and the crazy thrills you feel when things go right. Brown is as interested in despair as he is in delight.
With such an emotional range, and such an interesting structure—one half of a relationship going forward, the other backward, intersecting with a perfect date in the middle—you might think The Last Five Years is more evenly balanced than it is. But issues such as career prospects, homelife priorities and annoying friends muddy the central concern of why and how people fall in and out of love. And it’s pretty obvious that the Jamie character gets the better songs, the better career (he’s a famous writer, she’s a struggling actress), and the more articulate justifications following arguments.
Not only is Jamie written more sympathetically in the show in general; the imbalance is furthered by the distinct lack of chemistry between the stars in this Long Wharf production. Halpin and Clarke both sing divinely, but their acting is forced. Halpin especially comes off as stiff and tentative, even when he’s gleefully jumping up on tables. As the songs shift from “I can imagine loving you forever” to “I love you anyway” to “I used to love you,” the actors maintain the same distance from each other. You never feel that moment of true romance on which the show’s whole time-streamed structure turns.
So there’s not a lot of love to savor, and not a whole lot of other action onstage to distract you. When one character’s singing, the other’s sitting in darkness. Chairs, packing boxes (and other random ingredients of an apartment that is being moved into or out of) are hastily rearranged into a bed, a boat, a bookstore. It’s clean and neat, but lacks sparks.
The great scenic designer Eugene Lee (who designed a busier environment for the previous Long Wharf show, Athol Fugard’s The Shadow of the Hummingbird) has come up with an ingenious revolving stage, which resembles a gigantic clock face, to follow the shifting time schemes of the show. Long Wharf Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein, who directed three very different shows (The Underpants, Shadow of the Hummingbird and this one) for the theater this year and is scheduled to pull off a similar trick (Our Town, Picasso at the Lapin Agile and The Second Mrs. Wilson) next season, creates a lanquid, dimly lit, tightly focused atmosphere that honors the work’s classical-concert qualities at the expense of raw actorly excitement.
The show, and this production, provide an awkward mix of grandiose and intimate. Isolated on its tiny island of a set, the show seems lost on the Long Wharf’s bigger rounder mainstage. Some of the show’s biggest numbers are sung while the performers are sitting in chairs.
I’ve seen livelier, lovelier renditions of The Last Five Years on college and community stages. Those had their own issues, though, and it’s nice at least to hear Brown’s songs so well sung and so formally presented at the Long Wharf, with the musical sextet playing right above the area where the actor/singers emote. If you haven’t experienced the show before, it’s a sharp-witted Sondheimesque puzzle that unfolds cleverly before your eyes. The songs are decent examples of musical theater cabaret torch songs, with some welcome whimsy thrown in. It’s short (90 minutes, no intermission). It just ought to be sweeter.
The Last Five Years plays through June 1 at the Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Dr., New Haven. (203) 787-4282. www.longwharf.org