Sound Advice Reviews
The Last and the Next
It's all about love and marriage and how they both fall apart for a couple in The Last 5 Years, another recording of Jason Robert Brown's score which first came to the stage (in Chicago) just 12 years ago. Some of the performers on the other album reviewed this week weren't yet alive at the time, but are singing from Chicago and other shows with adult charactersincluding three Sondheim selections and two by Brown, even one from The Last 5 Years. "Broadway's Next Generation," precocious, peppy young 'uns who've trod the boards, have had their When I Grow Up show recorded live.
THE LAST FIVE YEARS
"Happily ever after" has a short shelf life for Jamie and Cathy in the two-character musical The Last Five Years, as the title indicates. The material has lasted longer, being a popular piece for production, its songs favorites of young performers in cabaret, auditions, open mics and piano bars. The play ends with their split and their meeting, as the plot unfolds alternately chronologically and backwards, as the two characters take turns singing solos, from their own points of view at various points in time. So, the writing on the wall is there from the beginning, making the "flashbacks" more poignant and the "previews," as it were, increasingly understandable. The artful re-use of a musical motif or re-focusing of a sliver of words brings irony and extra meaning. There's pain, anger, hurt, and frustration, but also welcome humor in spots and the times when they sing of their affection for each other saves this from being too down and dour. Just as one is burdened with the darkening clouds of the gloom of doomed-relationship blues, the other's at a point where skies were brighter and bluer.
The cast album from 2002 is one many show fans and Brown-o-philes know by heart and have close to their hearts. There are no new songs here and no extra bonus tracks of cut songs or alternate versions or instrumentals. Brown's original idea for the string-heavy instrumental make-up is used again, with his orchestrations for piano, bass, guitar, violin and two celli. And the cast's singing/interpretations of their roles as directed now by the writer himself? Well, logic and liner notes tell us this is his view of how he sees the new production ("It's the first time I feel like we all got everything right," he writes, "I've never been as proud of anything in my entire career.")
The stars do often powerful and interesting work here. Both have solid and often exciting musical theatre voices and show different colors. Kantor is closer in vocal color and more closely follows that blueprint set by the other cast's Norbert Leo Butz on some of his cuts than sweet-but-strong-voiced Betsy Wolfe is to the Cathy of Sherie Rene Scott (the role was played by Lauren Kennedy in the Chicago production). But there are times when both their songs and characters' attitudes take quite new paths. Brown songs can be tight, tight structurestorrents of words fueled by anger and the arrangements/orchestrations are painted with specificity of detail, driving songs with some determined precision and tempo. This leaves less room for loose phrasing or new twists. Overall, I find the new actors bringing us a warmer, less complex, less neurotic, less abrasive pair. Jamie can seem less self-obsessed and more sympathetic to some here, more "mensch"-like. And the Cathy character seems designed with a lighter touch, not as burdened or brave in the breaking-up and not as giddily exhilarated elsewhere as I hear things. They may be cuddlier, but they're less uniquely fascinating or quirky. As much as I appreciate a different take, here's the big difference: They don't break my heart. Why? Their hearts don't seem as full/empty; they don't seem as haunted and wounded.
Kantor can't help but charm, it seems. His Jamie is not overwhelmingly an angry loose cannon buried in work and pumped by ambition, at least when we hear him (as opposed to how his wife characterizes him in her "j'accuse" moments which may convince us he really is a selfish scoundrel). Is he holding back? He could be a modern version of the tragic hero, realizations and regrets coming too late, the fall from grace Greek-like in its proportions in "Nobody Needs to Know." He's playful in the Christmas story ("The Schmuel Song") and appealingly pleading rather than plodding and preachy selling its moral about attaining happiness. All to the good. "If I Didn't Believe in You" is his strongest, most convincing number, where we love him for loving her so much, ready and willing to support and shoulder the pain and push for patience. Elsewhere, he misses the mark on neurotic-tinged frustration that can seethe, and it simmers instead of showing its potential for exploding. Not sounding quite fed-up enough or fantasizing enough in "Shiksa Goddess," buckets of humor go unspilled.
Betsy Wolfe shows a range of colors in her voice and acting. There are some knockout belting notes and fine control and neatly nuanced, calibrated levels of emotion. But perhaps it all feels too "controlled" with softened edges where edginess and raw nerves might well grab us more. Assertiveness seems muted and the character's independent streak strikes me as a backbone developed late in the game as a defense and survival skill more than an outgrowth of feistiness and guts. "I'm Still Hurting" is musically very pretty but the hurt is more curt and circumspect, less confessional, more controlled. Disappointingly, while her Cathy has some can-do spirit, like Cantor, there are missed opportunities in the needed comic relief. The frazzled nerves and river of self-doubts and self-recriminations don't land in the audition sequence as she sings both her running inner monologue and the prototype song she's auditioning with. Her "Summer in Ohio" takes the most chances; some pay off and some don't. Alas, she does not build it steadily, taking the woes of summer stock toiling in her stride, but screams a few lines to have bursts of ire and play at being fed-up, rather than being playful. On the plus side, there is so much gold in her vocal tones and the kind of purity that spells grace. It can be such a pleasure to hear and it makes us hear the lines of melody with appreciation for that, and sometimes that suffices or is compensation. She captures a considerable amount of joy and jubilation in the happy sections. What's more, her voice can soar and be exciting.
The orchestrations and sound quality are major pluses here. Andrew Resnick is pianist/conductor. Bassist Randy Landau and guitarist Gary Sieger from the 2002 band return to the fold. They've often played with Brownon his own album singing his material and in concerts where he's whetted audiences' appetites with tastes of material from shows that have been gestating for approximately the last five years, more or less. Let's hope there's more in less time. Meanwhile, another trip through this score captures interest.
WHEN I GROW UP:
I was at the live concert of these spunky and talented young performers with theatre creds and not blatantly swelled heads preserved here. Their taking on their elders' songs was a bit odd but the nerviness mixed with innocence was cute and winning. And make no mistake: they can sing! In person, it was often disarming to watch their fearlessness and jubilation in trying on the material as if they were sneaking into the attic (or theatre costume shop) to try on admired adult garments. On disc, without their bright faces and eyes and smiling audience as accompaniment, it loses a lot and can seem "silly" and pale in comparison, as an audio experience, to performances on disc by savvy adults convincing in the characters. Still, keep the reality of who they are in mind and imagine.
The dichotomy can work as a cheer-upper and their pluck and polish impress. In many cases, they manage the melodies and take on tricky tempi rather well and have at least the outlines of the moods, attitudes and characterizations. They hit the notes and they hit their marks. Folks who have minimal tolerance for kids will find it perhaps wearing, and some who sometimes find kidsespecially belting kidsquite resistible will find the novelty will wear thin before they get to the last of the 20 songs or even "meet" each of the 11 featured singers in solo voice. The truth is that it's not all one color of cute and they're pros as performers, not just getting by on the adorable factor. But Matthew Schechter's on-target terrifically full-voiced "I Believe" from The Book of Mormon builds and builds, and is a real Mormon conquestworth waiting for (or skipping to).
It should be understood that the songs follow in the musical footprints of the original show versions. There's no agenda to reshape numbers or rethink them for young people as young people. Pianist Michael J. Moritz, Jr. is musical director and there are four other musicians grounded the kids, who were directed by Kenny Howard. Photos of the singers performing this concert fill the booklet. Their credits aren't given, but, as you might guess, they've been in recent Broadway musicals in significant roles: Mary Poppins, Elf, Bye Bye Birdie, Newsies, Beauty and the Beast, etc.
After a somewhat unsettling choice of a Spring Awakening number to start things off (as one of only two full-ensemble pieces, the youngest child takes the mic for a solo. She's Emily Rosenfeld, who's been playing Molly in the Annie revival. With mega-moxy, she unleashes her lung power and gloats through her notes appropriately in "Show Off" from The Drowsy Chaperone. Two Sondheim numbers for trios show less polish and fall into the "Oh-look-they're-kids-playing-at-adulthood-romantic-situations" category (both from Company: "Getting Married Today" and "You Could Drive a Person Crazy"). On the oldest end of the age spectrum, the teen-aged Neil McCaffrey and Matthew Gumley sound close to adult voices and have more nuance, wagging the fairy tale in Into the Woods's princes comparing notes about pursuit of princesses in both versions of Sondheim's winking "Agony." And young Mr. Gumley's rendition of Jason Robert Brown's "Someone to Fall Back On" works nicely; he seems to "get it" and his vocal is both invigorating and moving. The Brown number from The Last Five Years about the non-glamorous side of paying your dues and getting the blues from the grind of theatre has a splash of fun with Zoe Considine, even if she'd hardly convince you she'd be playing Anita (even at just the matinee) (even in Ohio) (even non-Equity). But give her time.
A couple of song titles seem to take on different meanings or unintentional humor in context of their ages; besides "Grow for Me" and "Waiting for Life"(" ...to begin"), there's a teen singing about remembering hearing Andrea McArdle on the Annie cast album way back when she was 9 and seeks "A Way Back to Then" ([title of show]). Well, "Then" wasn't so far from "now," but the talented Kelsey Fowler is sincere and makes it work. Her voice is full of yearning and shimmers.
I hope another venture will drop the novelty of playing adults and let them show acting skills and believable characterizations and appropriate song choices rather than be 7 or 17 going on 27. They don't need to stick to the sheet music from Oliver!, Peter Pan and Disney. There's other material they can shine with. It'll be interesting to see what happens with these actor-singers as they really do "grow up" and age into grown-up roles.