Some very fine acting and singing by Nicholas Belton and Wendy Fox help to validate and vindicate the new subtly provocative wrinkle that has been added to “The Last Five Years,” the two-person, virtually sung-through musical at the Crossroads Theater Company. With the casting of Belton, who is white, and Fox who is black, director Leah C. Gardiner has given one more crease to the conjugal complexities already embedded in Robert Jason Brown’s story about the dissolution of a marriage.
When “The Last Five Years” opened Off Broadway in 2002, I was among the many critics who were quick to notice and comment on how this beautifully composed but also commendably unsettling musical seemed like the flip side of “I Do! I Do!” the Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt musical in which we see a couple survive the ups and downs over 50 years of marriage. The flip side, as Brown sees it, is definitely less fun and certainly more harrowing.
When I saw the musical again in 2005 at the George Street Playhouse, I became even more acutely aware of how this journey through an ill-fated marriage lasting a mere five years could not only resonate with a bittersweet resolve but also how it could shift and manipulate our feelings by the sheer force and individuality of the two performers put in command of the musical’s content. In this production, Belton and Fox can take a shared credit for manipulating our empathy from one to the other.
Apparently inspired by his own failed first marriage, Brown used his distinctly personalized point of view to compose a story as told from the diverging perspectives of his musical’s two characters. Through them we are able to see how their marriage was doomed to failure and how specifically infidelity and contemporary career issues pebble that course.
Now that course has an extra twisty curve as seen in the light of an interracial relationship. It isn’t that anything has been added or deleted but by making Cathy Hyatt (Fox) black, another layer has been added to the relationship that was already being tested and defined along more typical grounds. Given a chance, an audience is willing to accept almost any challenge as long as the performers are as credible and as persuasive as are Belton and Fox. Aside from being pretty, Fox brings a passionate and vibrant resonance to her role as Cathy, an aspiring actress. And Belton appears boyishly high-strung, even a bit reckless in his physicality as Jamie Wallerstein, a young Jewish writer flush with the success of his first novel, and also with winning the love of his “shiksa goddess.”
Each tells the story from different starting points, but also in this staging by invading and overlapping the other’s space, a somewhat different, but also reasonably applicable approach to a musical comprising sung soliloquies. Cathy begins her story at the end of the marriage, and Jamie begins when he first falls in love with Cathy. Only during the middle when they get married do the two stories cross paths.
Though the issue of race is never a factor in the failure of their marriage, it provides a subtle subtext to the story that one may either choose to ignore or to contemplate. This doesn’t derail the integrity or the earnestness of Brown’s wonderful eclectic — jazz, blues, gospel, pastiche — score. One of a new generation of highly regarded musical theater composers, Brown won a Tony Award for his score for “Parade” (1998.) He has been particularly praised for his ability to support his winningly modernist melodies with uncommonly witty lyrics as is evident in “The Last Five Years.”
Belton certainly makes us feel the uniquely quick and quirky pulse of young New York City achievers. He grabs us early on with the cockiness and resoluteness of his ambition as well with the surging waves of self-assuredness he expresses in “Moving Too Fast.” He is at his most dramatically conflicted and impressive as he tries to rationalize his infidelity “Nobody Needs to Know.”
Fox creates a poignant portrait of a wife who can’t quite grasp the idea that wherever her husband’s devotion is, it is not in service to her. Fox has her most endearing scene singing “Climbing Uphill,” as part of a very funny “Audition Sequence.” Despite the way the musical is structured, Gardiner’s attempts to narrow the divide become a little confusing as if they were living side by side but in alternate universes.
The big hurdle for the “The Last Five Years” is for us to feel that these two people could have made their marriage work, had this or that happened or had this or that been said. But sadly neither compromises nor options play a role. The way the musical is structured and staged only underlines the degree of their separateness. Given that the songs are there to evoke the inner needs and wants of Cathy and Jamie, they mainly reinforce that they are unable to have a common meeting ground. What they end up with is a stalemate of a relationship with one going one way and one going the other way. What we end up with is a musical concept/gimmick without the benefit of an emotional commitment to either Cathy or Jamie.
Cathy and Jamie inhabit a space created by set designer by Eric Southern that includes a few set pieces, a bed that comes and goes, and stacks of cardboard boxes. Through a sheer curtain across the back of the set, we can see the 12-member string orchestra and one piano that provide impressive musical support. Whatever it is we end up feeling for Cathy and Jamie, it won’t be for their lack of musical and dramatic commitment to Brown’s exhilarating score.
“The Last Five Years,” through Sunday, April 29, Crossroads Theater Company, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. For tickets ($50) call 732-545-8100 or visit crossroadstheatrecompany.org.
A footnote: Brown won the Tony for Best New Broadway Musical in 1999 for “Parade” the same year that the Crossroads Theater Company won the Tony for Best Regional Theater.