‘Last Five Years’ puts pair in a pop opera time warp

Reviewed by Nancy Oliveri

Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years opened last night (March 22) in Binghamton, a production of Half Light Theatre, one of the more recent entries into the theater community here. The show is not exactly a musical and is not exactly a play, but is more like an opera. I would call it a Pop Opera, but without any instantly sing-able melodies. I didn’t leave with any one song buffering in my head, just a sense of the work as a whole.

That’s OK, though, because it was good and, first and foremost, a love story — a story about the first and, no surprise here, what turn out to be the last five years of a couple’s angst-ridden, sometimes hopeful, but never really tender relationship. Performed in the intimate setting of the Roberson  Museum and Science Center’s third-floor ballroom, the show was accompanied only by Vicky Gordon, a fine pianist.

The Last Five Years features two very talented performers: Missy Harris as Katharine, the aspiring, but struggling actress from the Midwest, and Colin Henehan as her man, Jamie, the uber-confident and wildly successful writer, originally from New York’s Washington Heights. She’s Catholic, he’s Jewish, so think of the old TV show Bridget Loves Bernie but without the happy ending. Henehan’s voice is clear and strong, his nuanced performances great. The consummate phony, with only a little bit of heart, Jamie is more in love with himself than anyone else.

Both do a creditable job with the material, which is complicated, sweet, funny, harsh and mellow by turns. We follow Kathy backward from the end of their marriage, and Jamie from the beginning to its messy end. They meet somewhere in the middle, right after intermission.

Jamie, at about the fourth year of their life together, is the darling of New York City society, toasted by the literary community for his successful novel. Katharine, on the other hand, in their third year, is living a life fraught with all the disappointment that comes from trying to make it big in Big Apple theater.

In the medley “A Miracle Would Happen”/”When You Come Home,” Jamie laments all the beautiful women who now find him irresistible, and he can’t have any of them because of Kathy, whom he loves but also begins to resent. The “miracle” would be that all other women would somehow be hideous, and he would not be tempted, as if that ever stopped anyone who was inclined to stray.

When Kathy sings her part, “When You Come Home,” as part of an audition on the other side of the simple black platform stage, Harris’ voice really soars. Her interpretation captures her concern over how the directors are evaluating her, but, more importantly, she feels these lyrics because she misses Jamie so much.

He later rejects her lobbying for more of his time and attention, telling her, “I will not lose because you can’t win.” I don’t think this is her problem. She just misses him, but he’s determined to put it in those terms to assuage whatever guilt he is feeling for surpassing, and consequently, abandoning her while pretending earlier to encourage her aspirations.

Ironically, her singing is far more beautiful than the hackneyed prose that Jamie gets to spew at a reading/book signing for his adoring fans. OK, it’s not that bad, but as they say in the publishing biz, “The book has commercial appeal.”

Thank you to director Chris Nickerson, who corrected the problem of over-amplification at intermission. As lovely as the piano work was, and I give Gordon all the credit in the world for being able to play so well for almost two hours straight with only one break, the volume of the instrument was in danger of drowning out what turned out to be beautiful, soulful voices, and important lyrics.

The program identifies each scene/song with the year in which it takes place, so keep it handy. The whole song-cycle premise is clever and worth following, but you won’t take it in by osmosis. You have to work a little, too, which connects you even more to the characters.

The show will be performed again at 8 p.m. today (March 23) and at 3 p.m. Sunday (March 24) at Roberson, 30 Front St., Binghamton. For reservations, call (800) 838-3006, or visit www.HalfLightTheatre.org or www.Roberson.org. Tickets are $18 in advance or $20 at the door, and worth the price.

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