Forceful interpretations of moving songs, can't save the Second Stage's revival of The Last Five Years from being painfully on the nose in its direction. In some ways it doesn't matter, as the strength of this material has always been the killer songs and the actors valiantly interpreting the he said-she said emotional minefield that is a couple coming together at the same time the same couple is falling apart.
Taking a page from shows like Merrily We Roll Along and Pinter's Betrayal, the story is told in reverse chronological order by Cathy and in chronological order by Jamie. Betsy Wolfe is Cathy, a struggling actress who comes home to find out her marriage is ending and from there we see the years roll back and the fractures in this marriage unfold in reverse order ending with their first date. Adam Kantor is Jamie, the up-and-coming author who has fallen for Cathy, his shiksa goddess, and as he becomes more successful in life, his marriage becomes less so. Directed by the composer and lyricist of the piece Jason Robert Brown the structure means that these two characters do not interact with each other except for one moment in the middle.
The songs therefore must lay out the scenes as there is no real dialogue and the emotional content is wholly dependent on the songs. And they do pack a wallop. Opening with the blistering I'm Still Hurting is as raw as you can get. The musical strands repeat throughout and there are hints at happier days in sad songs and sad over notes in happy songs. The musical works (well that's up for debate but it worked for me enough) because you circle around the blame game for 90 minutes. The performances drive your view of the he-said/she-said-ness. If the actor playing Jamie is a dick too early well...you can't imagine how they got together. If Cathy is too shrill or needy, the same.
Here Betsy Wolfe is an ideal Cathy. I mean how could you not fall for her breezy, perky, slightly co-dependent Cathy. She plays Cathy's insecurities lightly but they are there beneath the surface and we see them flit back and forth across her face. We know this actress, who things are not working out for, but she's trying, putting on a smile and pushing forward while her husband seems to be effortlessly successful. He wants to be supportive of Cathy but she needs more from him, she wants more from him. Wolfe captures that tugging neediness perfectly. She's a whole person and Wolfe makes her believable from start to finish (or finish to start).
Jamie is moving up quickly and there's no time to wait for Cathy. I found his trajectory is less clear in this production. Besides his manic energy and his epic talent (which we keep hearing about-whatevs), there's not much to him except his relentless forward movement. Until things start to fall apart. Maybe in this production I just kept seeing Jamie in relation to Cathy and not someone standing on their own (ironic). That said, Adam Kantor makes Jamie more charming and likable than I would have thought possible. In what might be the most awful hard truth spoken aloud ever, Jamie sings, "I
will not fail so you can be comfortable, Cathy. I will not lose
because you can't win." Gut-wrenching dickatude. Cathy leave him and find happiness elsewhere! Probably not Ohio. But somewhere.
Kantor doesn't get his voice around the songs all the way through. He brings more balance to a story where Jamie can feel really slick right out of the gate. But Wolfe is so radiant it's hard to see why Jamie is pulling away from her. She's hard to take your eyes off of and maybe I felt so much for her Jamie becomes the afterthought here.
I disliked the over-dependence on digital animation screens and the literal storytelling that went into their design. I felt like they added little and were distracting. For some reason, rather than embrace the symbolic boat of union and disjunction in the centerpiece of the musical, I found it a little goofy in what should have been a very serious moment.
I'm glad to see Wolfe get a chance to shine here. But let's give her a starring role and happy ending in her next show! #TeamWolfe