The revival of Jason Robert Brown’s “The Last Five Years,” now at Second Stage, breezes along on the strength of its two lead actors, who invest their performances with the casual confidence of seasoned stage pros and the enthusiasm of hopeful newlyweds, even when things aren’t so hopeful.
The enduring musical, first performed in New York in 2002, is for the first time here directed by its composer and lyricist (Brown also wrote “Parade” and “13”). Adam Kantor (Mark, in the final Broadway cast of “Rent”) and Betsy Wolfe (fresh from “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”) are the twenty-something New Yorkers who jump into a marriage fueled by the optimism of their age. He’s an aspiring novelist; she’s a struggling actress.
As crafted by Brown, “The Last Five Years” tells a story of romance going cold, but with a twist. Kantor’s on-the-rise Jamie Wallerstein tells his version of events in chronological order, becoming more of a philanderer as his success grows. Wolfe’s Cathy Hyatt tells her story in reverse. We meet her as a worn-out, wounded actress, and gradually see her revert to a time before she lost interest in her husband’s career, turning into a spirited newlywed and Jamie’s own “Shiksa Goddess.”
The characters interact only briefly, at their wedding, in the middle of the one-act story. (“The Next 10 Minutes,” sung amid the nuptials, is among the most beautiful in the show, particularly in the hands of Kantor and Wolfe.) This is show’s most compelling element and, for some, its Achilles’ heel: Jamie and Cathy have few scenes together. You want to mourn their disintegrating relationship, but you’re never fully sure what’s drawn them to one another in the first place.
Kantor’s energy carries the musical’s early scenes, perhaps because it’s here where his Jamie, at 23, is so upbeat. A riff on the nebbishy-sexy academic guys who populate New York, he’s thrilling in the famous “Shiksa Goddess” scene, which has him saying goodbye to Catherine after their first date. A musical paean to the forbidden fruit of a nice Jewish boy, the song was an audience favorite from the cast recording. They’re even selling “Shiksa Goddess” T-shirts upstairs in the Second Stage cafe.
Wolfe comes fully to life a bit later, notably with “A Summer in Ohio,” which has her writing a letter to Jamie about a mind-numbing summer doing stock. It’s delightful to watch her lithely dropping comedic references to “West Side Story” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Despite having been staged in an amazing 500 regional productions, one imagines “The Last Five Years” is most at home in New York, where these characters, with their ethnic and professional quirks, fit in with ease. Jamie tells his best friend of plans to move in with Cathy during a nosh at Zabars. Wolfe has a hysterical, entirely internal disintegration during an audition, depicted in the song “Climbing Uphill” (“Why am I working so hard? These are the people who cast Linda Blair in a musical. Jesus Christ, I suck, I suck, I suck, I suck.”)
Scenic designer Derek McLane’s descending video screens help locate various scenes, including a boat ride in Central Park and a drive through the Ohio countryside, with Catherine taking an unseen Jamie to meet her parents for the first time. A sextet of musicians sit on elevated chairs against the brick backdrop.
As the musical winds down, Cathy is beaming after her first date with Jamie, while he is lamenting his infidelities (“In a perfect world/A miracle would happen/And every girl would look like Mister Ed.”) Where you come down on the ending will likely stem from your own experiences on this road: Been burned by a cheating lover? Felt like a spouse wasn’t supportive enough of your career? I felt Jamie was the snake here, and was murky on how much blame Cathy should shoulder for the union’s failure.
Brown’s unusual construction helped make “The Last Five Years” a hit in Chicago, where it premiered in 2001; that brief run in post-9/11 New York was poorly reviewed. The composer’s wife is said to have thwarted a planned transfer to Lincoln Center, unhappy with the way she was represented in the story. Still, “The Last Five Years” has managed nine lives, thanks in part to a popular cast album with the original New York stars, Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott. (Broadway.com shows off some of the best of the regional productions here.) A coming film version will star Jeremy Jordan (“Smash”) and Anna Kendrick (“Pitch Perfect”).
Brown, the marital rough spots that inspired the musical behind him, says audiences can take from the show whatever they wish. “I've been able to rest comfortably knowing that I managed to write something balanced,” he recently told Playbill. The sentiment rings true. I’ve decided it’s best not to assign blame for the failure of this marriage. Jamie and Cathy have enough to work through without anyone choosing sides.
“The Last Five Years,” at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theatre, 305 W. 43rd St., through May 12. Tickets: $65-$150. For more information, visit 2ST.com.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn