Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Review: 'The Last Five Years'

"What doesn't kill us makes us stronger." Nietzsche's dictum, great for individuals seeking motivation, bad for couples incapable of masking mutual resentment. Case in point: Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years, now receiving a soulful production by 11th Hour Theatre Company, says critic Jim Rutter

Review: 'The Last Five Years'


By Jim Rutter

"What doesn't kill us makes us stronger." Nietzsche's dictum, great for individuals seeking motivation, bad for couples incapable of masking mutual resentment. Case in point: Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years, now receiving a soulful production by 11th Hour Theatre Company at University of the Arts' Caplan Center for the Performing Arts.

Brown's book chronologically separates the sung-through storylines of twentysomethings Jamie (Michael Philip O'Brien) and Cathy (Cara Noel Antosca); her narrative begins at the end of their failed five-year marriage and works backward, while he retells the story from the start. It's a clever, if at times confusing, device in which each character tells one side of the story, only interacting with the other in the number that signifies their engagement and wedding.

As he earns fame as a novelist, she struggles to gain parts in regional theater. Exasperation exhausts and indignation inflames, and each song begins with the promise of reconciliation before devolving into one more source of conflict.

O'Brien and Antosca deliver careful characterizations, but because of the contrast between her diminuitive frame and O'Brien's linebacker physique she appears cloying and nagging, and garners little sympathy, while his robust charisma makes it easy to root for his success. Both, however, offer superb renditions of Brown's varied, engagingly modulated score, which flows like a receding and swelling current of emotional depth under Tabitha Allen's musical direction.

Director Megan Nicole O'Brien emphasizes the lyrics' wistful, melancholy aspects, overlaying a "what could have been" feel to the stories while sacrificing some of the script's humor, or cheapening it with gaudy choreography.

But maybe that's the point. Brown based The Last Five Years on his own failed first marriage, and O'Brien presents the 85-minute musical as an evening-length lament, a reflecting pool of shared interpersonal failure.

Any smiles stem from sadness, a bliss born of basking in memory, if only we can remain strong enough to let Cathy's nostalgia remind us that yes, there was a pain once worth enduring.

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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