Monday, February 09, 2015

The Last Five Years: Off-Broadway Goes Big Screen

The title of Jamie Wellerstein’s bestselling debut novel sounds nauseatingly pretentious, but Light Out of Darkness happens to be a hat tip to Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, so all is forgiven. Regardless, his remarkable early success will put strain on his marriage to a would-be Broadway actress. We know it will not last, because he walks out in the first scene. We will subsequently see how it all unraveled in Richard LaGravenese’s adaptation of Jason Robert Brown’s Off-Broadway musical, The Last Five Years (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Wellerstein is leaving and it looks like he is never coming back. Cathy Hiatt is obviously devastated, but it gives her the first opportunity to show her range with the nakedly revealing feature spot, “Still Hurting.” There is more to this story than first appears. Wellerstein was once reasonably in love with Hiatt. It was he who first suggested they live together, before he eventually proposed. Yet, Wellerstein’s immediate success caused friction. Yes, it brought him into close proximity of literary groupies and trampy editorial assistants, but it is really caused more of a psychological disconnect between the brashly confident Wellerstein and the increasingly despondent Wellerstein née Hiatt.

Although the original stage production somewhat resembled Love Letters in its stripped down, dueling song-and-monologue structure, LaGravenese opens it up quite nicely. He brings it out onto the streets of New York and transforms the musical numbers into dramatic exchanges.

Frankly, the real issue with LFY is common to many new book musicals today. You might consider it the Rent effect. There simply is not enough emotional diversity to the score. Each number requires the cast to start at practically a crescendo level, maintaining the notes and the soul-baring wails. Even the show’s “novelty song,” “Shiksa Goddess” requires Wellerstein to belt out at the top of his lungs. It is more effective when a show goes up and down the scale. Give us some slow groovers and easy loopers, but with catchy melodies. Then hit us with the show-stopper.

Be that as it may, Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan do everything that is asked of them and then some. As a veteran of Broadway (the way better than you’ve heard Bonnie & Clyde) and Smash, Jordan exhibits the chops you would expect, but the strength and clarity of Kendrick exceeds the expectations established by Pitch Perfect and her Tony nomination for High Society at the precocious age of twelve. They also have appealing chemistry together in the early days and convincingly push each away during the later bad times. Together, they make the arc of the relationship feel true.

Much of LFY’s narrative context and on-screen communication is delivered through song, often giving it a rock opera-ish vibe. Necessarily, one song often leads into another, reinforcing the samey-ness of the score. Nevertheless, Wellerstein’s climatic “If I Didn’t Believe in You” stands out as a dramatic equalizer, largely regaining the audience sympathy he lost in the opening scenes. Cinematographer Steven Meizler makes it all sparkle in a way that subtly evokes the big colorful Golden Age musicals, but in a way the still feels contemporary. If you like the sound of most post-Rent Broadway musicals that are not period productions, LaGravenese’s adaptation should be like catnip. For the rest of us, the two leads manage to carry the day through sheer gumption. Recommended for fans of movie musicals, The Last Five Years opens this Friday (2/13) in New York, at the Village East.