By Karen Isaacs
MTC (the Music Theater of Connecticut) is closing its season with Jason Robert Brown’s off-Broadway musical, The Last Five Years through April 24.
The musical, asks an eternal question: What happens to cause a relationship to go sour? In this case it is the relationship (and marriage) of Cathy and Jamie. From meeting to divorce it lasts just five years. Not unusual nor even surprising. After all the two are young (early 20s) when they meet and both are trying to establish themselves in artistic careers. Jamie wants to write fiction and Cathy is trying to make it as an actress/singer/performer.
What is different about The Last Five Years, and works intermittently, is the way the story is told. Cathy tells the story of the relationship from finding Jamie’s letter announcing his intention of leaving her and goes backwards to when they first met and fell in love.
Jamie, on the other hand, tells the story chronologically from meeting Cathy to deciding to leave her and end the marriage. The two meet/cross only at the wedding.
Jason Robert Brown — the composer, lyricist and book writer for The Last Five Years is one of the most promising in the younger generation of Broadway writers. He regularly composes, writes the lyrics and does the arrangements for his shows which have included The Bridges of Madison County (he won the Tony for best score and orchestrations), Parade (the Tony for best score), Honeymoon in Vegas, 13, and Songs for a New World.
The Last Five Years opened off- Broadway in 2001 and was named as one of the best shows of the year, winning the Drama Desk award.
When the show begins, Cathy is reading the letter Jamie has left for explaining that he is leaving. In just minutes in this mostly sung musical, we see Jamie — but he is just meeting Cathy and falling in love with her.
The songs of each reflect where they are in the relationship and in their lives — from just meeting, to getting to know each other, an engagement, wedding, and then the difficulties of married life. The only time they are in the same place and time is at their wedding.
Their lives are equally different — Jamie finds success as novelist early on when his book is published to acclaim; Cathy struggles to make find jobs in the theater — auditioning numerous times, working in far off summer theater.
Jennifer Malenke and Nicolas Dromard are Cathy and Jamie. The roles are more difficult then they seem on the surface and each performer struggles at times. It is easy for Cathy to seem perpetually angry – at Jamie and at her lack of career success. Malenke’s performance is very one note — the tender moments are rare; also rare are reflective moments. It is no wonder that Jamie begins avoiding her. Dromard has an equal problem; Jamie can seem self-centered and selfish, if not handled carefully. As his career takes off, it is easy to understand why he may become self-absorbed with his success but you don’t see his frustration with Cathy’s lack of involvement with his career.
Unfortunately director Kevin Connors and particularly musical director Nolan Bonvouloir have not helped the two performers. MTC is a very small theater, seating under 150 people in a thrust stage; so why must the performers use microphones? Can’t these two experienced musical performers project sufficiently in the small space (each area is just 4 rows deep) to be heard?
But the real problem is that the pianist, situated at the back of the stage, overwhelms everything else. It is just too loud. Not only does it force the performers to belt, but it drowns out the other instruments in the combo. Brown uses cello a great deal in his orchestrations but this cellist could not be heard. Right after seeing the show, I heard the original cast cd and realized how much the cello added to the mood of the show. It is missing in this production.
There are some other questionable decisions. Cathy’s costumes seem like a reprise of the 1970s, and for one part of the show, the staging blocked our view of Joe.
The lack of subtlety makes this production of The Last Five Years a less successful and enjoyable one than it should be. The show deserved better.
The Last Five Years is MTC, 509 Westport Ave., Norwalk through April 24. For tickets, visit musictheatreofct.com or call 203-454-3883.