As he proved with “Songs for a New World,” the enormously talented Jason Robert Brown is singularly adept at creating suites of gorgeous numbers in a variety of musical idioms. And smart cabaret singers everywhere will be fighting to get their hands on the lush melodies and emotionally resonant lyrics contained in Brown’s latest pocket musical, “The Last Five Years.” But if this premiering show is to thrive long-term in the legit arena, it needs a lot more work on narrative and character.
Premiering at the Northlight Theater in suburban Chicago under the helm of Daisy (daughter of Hal) Prince, and featuring Gotham-based thesps, “The Last Five Years” is a relationship-driven two-hander that lasts about 80 minutes. Brown plays his own score in concert with a small ensemble.
The emotionally intense piece follows Jamie, a young Jewish novelist (played by Norbert Butz) who meets, marries and divorces Kathleen, a Catholic actress (Lauren Kennedy), over the course of five years.
The first-blush-to-agony range of the narrative means the song-list moves freely from the optimistically upbeat (“I Could Be in Love With Someone Like You”) to the personally apocalyptic (“I Could Never Rescue You”).
But there’s an additional angle in play here. Jamie’s version of the relationship is told in chronological order, from boy-meets-girl to boy-has-affair. Kathleen’s version goes in reverse. With the relationship in tatters, she begins her singing at the top of the show with a piece called “Still Hurting” and ends at the point where the two are about to meet.
In other words, “The Last Five Years” is like two separate musicals told in an alternating fashion. With the exception of the point where the two narrative trajectories overlap (the wedding, appropriately enough), all of musical numbers are solos. The show is basically an alternation of insights.
This unusual structure works surprisingly well and allows Brown to plow the well-hoed — but ever-popular — field of the contemporary relationship while adding something of a fresh perspective. Most of the numbers are terrific — especially a sweet ditty called “The Schumel Song” that Jason composes for his sweetie at Christmas. There’s also a soaring ballad called “If I Didn’t Believe in You” and any number of other pleasures. Brown’s musical and lyrical chops are in top form here.
But the characters are a problem. Successful Jamie is far more fleshed out than loser Kathleen, who spends far too much of the first hour whining about her flailing career or complaining that she does not get enough attention from her busy, busy man. An insecure “Audition Sequence” is obvious fodder for cheap laughs and needs to hit the cutting-room floor.
Conversely, Jamie goes directly from the wedding to a song about finding other women attractive — if we’re to care at all about this self-absorbed upstart, he needs at least one number in between.
These problems, perhaps, flow from making both of the characters artsy types — which limits the universality of their angst. Jamie’s always kvetching about the need to spend time with his agent. Kathleen doesn’t want to do another show in Ohio — perish the thought. For general audiences, these issues may feel less than compelling.
The sweet-voiced Kennedy could dig a littler deeper into her emotional psyche, but Butz’s work already is strong. And Prince’s imaginative production has all kinds of potential. Beowolf Boritt’s deliciously ironic setting features an empty wedding scene (chairs and flowers, etc.) set on a vertical plane so that it hovers over the unhappy couple.
With some additional numbers and more attention to the nuance of character, Brown could smooth over the disconcerting but pervasive feelings of mild sexism and showbiz insularity. But most of all, the book needs more surprises that reflect the uniqueness of real-life relationships rather than conventional wisdom.
The numbers are ready to be rolled out — they just need a book to go with them.