Tuesday, September 24, 2013


The Last Five Years is pretty much a cult phenomenon. This modest yet heartfelt little two-hander musical by composer Jason Robert Brown made a splash when it initially opened Off-Broadway in 2001 featuring the then-unknown Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott in breakthrough performances. And, while the show wasn't really a huge critical success, the show obtained a huge following due to its breathtaking contemporary pop-rock score. And here we are, with an Off-Broadway revival produced at Second Stage over 12 years later featuring two new up-and-coming talents: Adam Kantor and Betsy Wolfe. Plus, the icing on the cake: Jason Robert Brown himself as director. So, how is this new cast recording?

Well, I'll put it this way: Do not expect this album to replace the original cast recording with Butz and Scott. It simply doesn't. But is it an excellent companion, especially for fans of the show? Oh god yes.

It's a bit surprising that, after 12 whole years, there hasn't been much in the way of revision... but that simply means that Brown is content with the piece as it is. And I think we can all be content with his contentment. This much-loved score is a cabaret performer's wet dream, and the songs have been used countless times in concerts and auditions. It's challenging, rangy stuff that really allows an opportunity to showcase acting and singing ability in a big way... and Mr. Kantor and Ms. Wolfe navigate it with skill and aplomb. Both are excellent and well-established singers in their own right. They take this music and make it their own, but in such a way that it still feels not too distant from the original work we've come to know and love for this past decade. They've dug deep into this material, found wonderful new moments of comedy and pathos, and have very different yet still faithful approaches to the work, vocally and dramatically.

Betsy Wolfe's Cathy Hyatt isn't quite vulnerable enough in the show's opening moments; her Still Hurting doesn't quite break our hearts... rather, it merely squeezes. This woman can belt with the best of them, but doesn't exhibit the appropriate restraint to live her more tragic songs to the fullest (with the exception of her wonderfully wrenching breakdown in See I'm Smiling). She fares much better as the score moves along and she gets to sing more bouncy and comical work. Her Climbing Uphill is funnier and better than any version I've heard, and that includes Sherie Rene Scott's excellent original.

Adam Kantor as Jamie Wellerstein consistently finds wonderful truth in his performance, and his voice, like Wolfe's, is top-notch. He's just as adept at tackling his emotionally wrought tunes as he is the upbeat pop numbers. His range and control are a comfortable pleasure to listen to. He doesn't try to be as good as Norbert Leo Butz and instead takes his own beautifully realized route, and his journey through the show is so effectively and honestly paced. He completely nails songs like Moving Too Fast and If I Didn't Believe in You, and is hilarious in the difficult but touching Schmuel Song.

If I didn't make it clear enough already, these fabulous songs hold up so well on this recording. The Next Ten Minutes is still stirringly evocative and lushly romantic. Moving Too Fast is still toe-tappingly funky and catchy. And Goodbye Until Tomorrow/I Could Never Rescue You, the show's finale duet, still digs deep and ends the show on a powerful and moving note. Kantor and Wolfe do this music more than justice and are near-perfect vessels for the material.

There has always been debate as to whether or not The Last Five Years actually works as a piece of theatre, particularly due to its unorthodox and detached narrative structure. I'm in the camp that believes it does. The opposing chronologies are an effective means of showing that Jamie and Cathy's relationship was pretty much doomed from the day they met. It's a wonderfully unique means of storytelling and Brown's excellent score makes it easy to ignore or forget any faults the show may have.

Bottom line: If you love The Last Five Years, you have to have this new recording. I'm ordering you. Get it now. Produced by Sh-K-Boom/Ghostlight Records and upholding their usual standard of excellence, this new cast album is superb in its own right. It holds up without comparison to the original album. If you're new to this show, however, get the original cast recording first. If you love it, which you probably will, you'll love this new version too.

The Last Five Years is a must-have.

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