There’s nothing so antique as a four-poster onstage at the Minetta Lane Theater, but Jason Robert Brown’s new musical, “The Last Five Years,” could easily be retitled “I Do! I Don’t!” I fail to recall how long Mary Martin and Robert Preston stayed married in the 1966 two-hander tuner by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, but it seemed like forever (never a plus onstage) when I saw them on tour. Life as well as the theater moves faster these days, and so the dating, marriage and inevitable divorce endures an intermission-less half-decade that lasts just 83 minutes in “The Last Five Years.” Short, bittersweet and nearly perfect, Brown has come up with a winning combination of music and book that could run longer than the couple he so artfully dissects.
The last five years is actually her story; his is the next five. Cathy (Sherie Rene Scott) begins at the end of their relationship and moves backward as Jamie (Norbert Leo Butz) sings of their first date and then goes forward to the divorce. He is a young Jewish novelist of enormous success; she is the somewhat aimless shiksa who becomes a performer at his insistence and finds herself stuck on tour in Ohio. Their respective stories meet briefly in the middle at the wedding in which they sing their first of only two duets, “The Next Ten Minutes.”
Taking the leap with such high concepts, writers usually crash-land. Brown soars, making the conceit imbue every encouraging, optimistic step forward with an anticipation of its mortality. Under Daisy Prince’s direction, that pervading sense of doom is never more poignant than during “The Next Ten Minutes,” which begins with Jamie in a rowboat in Central Park as he points out the apartment buildings of the rich and famous to an imaginary Cathy, who only later appears in the person of Scott. He proposes, she accepts, and they are married. Then Cathy steps into the receding rowboat as she remarks on the Central Park West landmarks pointed out to her by an imaginary Jamie, who is no longer present in the person of Butz.
None of this would work without a score that is replete with infectious tunes as well as a couple of patter songs that reveal a jaded showbiz humor that could not even be hinted at in Brown’s last show, “Parade,” about anti-Semitism in the South. Brown also orchestrates here, using a six-person combo of piano, percussion and strings that is nothing less than sumptuous.
Perhaps he should rethink some of his recitative, however. Maybe it’s better to have your characters talk rather than sing about choosing just the right photographer for your head shots. Also, for anyone who’s OD’d on Woody Allen movies, must the Jewish guy always save the shiksa from her own radically diminished sense of self?
As for Scott and Butz: Contrary to popular myth, they do make Broadway performers like they used to. In addition to the necessary and considerable chops required for “The Last Five Years” — it’s almost nonstop singing — these two give the impression they could walk into any straight play, not sing a note and still carry the show with considerable humor and pathos.
“The Last Five Years” is structured into 14 scenes. For clarity’s sake, Prince has wisely chosen to present them as distinct set pieces of he said/she said. Christine Binder’s elaborate lighting design provides the necessary transitions against Beowulf Boritt’s gargantuan circular set, which is as impressive as it is threatening to look at for an hour and a half. Complete with floral bouquets, an empty beer bottle and a couple of dozen white folding chairs, the scene of a wedding has been rolled on its side as if some huge marble sundial had just broken lose from its stand. The whole thing looks ready to tumble into the audience. I got the point at first glance, but my fear lingered all night.