In the 11 years since The Last Five Years premiered at Off Broadway’s Minetta Lane Theatre, the two-character time-bending musical has developed an almost cultlike following among theater students, aspiring actors, and would-be songwriters who worship at the altar of composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown. It’s been translated into multiple languages and performed everywhere from Germany to Japan. But even 11 years from now, the show will have the same fatal flaw of the finely tuned new revival at Off Broadway’s Second Stage (through May 12): the completely unlikable on-stage couple who spend nearly 90 minutes singing at (yes, at) at each other.
Brown splits the five-year saga of a crumbling marriage into separate song cycles. Jamie (Adam Kantor) tells the couple’s story from the beginning; Cathy (Betsy Wolfe) starts at the end, going backward. (Think Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along.) They meet only once, for a fleeting wedding-in-Central-Park duet. It’s an all-too-common New York City tale — people who are never in the same place at the same time. Think about it: Which of us hasn’t dumped, or been dumped by, someone for that very reason?
But Cathy’s first song is full of nothing but hurt and bitterness toward Jamie: ”Jamie arrived at the end of the line. Jamie’s convinced that the problems are mine,” she sings. In her next number, she snaps: ”You could stay with your wife on her f–king birthday.” Not coming off very well, is she? Meanwhile, we learn that what bewitched Jamie about Cathy is her ”Shiksa goddess” status (”I’m your Hebrew slave!” he sings), and that he’s an up-and-coming young novelist/egomaniac. While his career is exploding, she doesn’t want to schmooze at his book parties. While she’s trapped in summer theater in Ohio with a gay midget, an ex-stripper, and a snake named Wayne, he can’t wait to return to his fawning friends/fans in New York. Who do you feel sorry for? Personally, neither of them.
And yet — two unpleasant characters have never been blessed with such a stunning score. From the melancholy music-box-style opening notes to the ironically upbeat finale, there’s not a clunker of a tune, cringe-worthy lyric, or superficial rhyme to be found anywhere. Brown may have won a Best Original Score Tony Award for 1998’s Parade, but this is far and away his finest work. Treat yourself to the original cast recording with Sherie Rene Scott and Norbert Leo Butz, or, if you prefer, wait for the unannounced but I suspect inevitable new version with Kantor and Wolfe. (There will be comparisons between the two casts — neither one is ”better” when you come right down to it. Wolfe does manage to make Cathy somewhat sympathetic, even appealing in a few spots — a much-appreciated detail.)
You can also treat yourself to a ”Shiksa Goddess” t-shirt in the lobby. I suspect they’re selling like gangbusters. C+
(Tickets: 2st.com or 212-246-4422)