By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
As Jamie, Ric Leal must go in the other direction, starting out as the love-smitten young suitor and ending up the cheating, ego-driven hound. Leal has a made-by-Mattel plasticity that works for the slickness of his nice-Jewish-boy-gone-bad character, and his good acting helps him put across a few songs that require high notes that seem just a tick out of his range. On opening night, Leal's performance was plagued by headset microphone problems that made both his and Freeman's voices snap, crackle and pop when they hit their upper registers.
In a musical that keeps its only two characters separated most of the time, Leal and Freeman still manage to cook up some chemistry that sizzles in their courtship and wedding scenes (choreographed nicely by Sara J. Romersberger). They look great together, these two, like a shiny blond Barbie and a black-haired Ken. In this show, the man gets the hubba-hubba scene, by the way. Jamie wears only tight black boxers to sing "Nobody Needs to Know" while stretched out on his mistress' bed. It's like the sexy "Call From the Vatican" number from Nine, only this time the man's coiled up half-naked in the sheets.
Accompanying Freeman and Leal onstage is a tight septet led by musical conductor and pianist Jeff Lankov (alternating with Buddy Shanahan). The deeply textured sounds of the violin played by Victor Koszman and cellos (John Landefeld and Dan Lewis) enrich the small ensemble and give it an orchestral boost.
Any weak spots in The Last Five Years, aside from the sometimes-awkward backward-forward structure of the storytelling, emerge from Brown's lyrics, which can fall into trite patterns. In one of Jamie's songs, "Moving Too Fast," comes this: My heart's been stolen/My ego's swollen/I just keep rollin' along. So tell it to Ol' Man River.
That's just a small quibble. For the most part, this is a musical that manages to get into an hour and a half what it takes most shows twice that long to express. Marked by two lovely performances by Freeman and Leal, The Last Five Yearstakes big risks, musically and emotionally, to tell parallel stories about the risky business of romance.