ON THE RECORD: Laura Benanti at 54 Below and the 2013 Revival of The Last Five Years

By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
29 Sep 2013

Cover art
Cover art

This week's column examines Laura Benanti's 54 Below act, In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention, and the new revival cast album of the Second Stage production of Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years.

*

Laura Benanti: In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention [Broadway]

Sometimes it's tough to be a critic. One night last May I attended Laura Benanti's nightclub act at 54 Below, In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention. I have always enjoyed Benanti in performance, ever since she turned up in that odd, bouncing musical Swing! in 1999. She affirmed her skills as kid sister Eileen in the Donna Murphy-led Encores! production of Wonderful Town — at City Center, though not when it transferred — and as Cinderella in the 2002 revival of Into the Woods.

She has never let me down, except perhaps in The Wedding Singer, although you can chalk that up to the material. Recent appearances, especially in Lincoln Center Theater's In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, have only illustrated her enhanced acting abilities and cemented my appreciation.

Watching her at 54 Below, I got a better sense of her comic talents; in addition to her musical comedy flair, Benanti seems to be naturally funny. Thus, I very much looked forward to the live CD recording of her 54 Below act — so much so that I put it off a column or two, so that I had the space to give her the featured slot.

I finally cleared the decks, sat back and pressed play, only to discover that what worked so well in person did not enchant me on CD! Astonished, I went back and read my report of the 54 Below performance. Everything on the disc is pretty much as I described. (One of the highlights, a dementedly funny mix of "Ol' Man River" and Aretha Franklin's "Respect", is omitted, perhaps due to rights issues.) It was the same material, and I have a hunch that this was the very same performance I attended.

Why, then, does the CD lack the magic? The excitement? In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention was a more-than-memorable nightclub act; it returned to 54 Below in September for its third set of performances, and I imagine the word of mouth is so strong that Benanti could easily book another encore. Yet I can only offer the CD a modest recommendation.

One of my comments in May referred to the seeming inadvisability of some of the song choices, specifically three written by Benanti's musical director Todd Almond. These might be effective within the context of the unknown-to-me musicals from whence they come, but they were close to baffling plugged into what was otherwise an hour of high hilarity. 

On the CD, we don't have the luxury of watching Benanti's performance, and these songs — plus one written by Benanti herself — bog things down. Combined, and including the explanatory introductions, they take up 21 of the disc's 70 minutes. Perhaps this is part of the problem. Fortunately, the disc ends with three superb tracks of Benanti precisely as I experienced her at 54 Below, including an exceedingly touching rendition of Harry Chapin's "Mr. Tanner" followed by two show tunes Benanti has performed on Broadway: A wonderful "Unusual Way" from Maury Yesten's Nine and the ever-dazzling "Model Behavior" from David Yazbek's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. And lest you wonder, the latter works perfectly well out of context and with a mere four-piece band.

My hunch is that this recording of In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention might have thoroughly pleased me, had I not already seen it live. Benanti has never failed to impress and delight me in performance or on recordings, but this CD somehow leaves me lukewarm. Which is to say, it's tough to be a critic.

Cover art

The Last Five Years [Ghostlight]

Jason Robert Brown didn't burst on the scene with the intimate, semi-autobiographical, two-character musical The Last Five Years; he had made a promising debut with the 1995 Off-Broadway revue Songs for a New World. Parade, in 1998, marked Brown as an astonishing new voice in the musical theatre award, earning the 28-year-old his very own Tony Award. (Brown's subsequent Broadway appearances — Urban Cowboy in 2003 and 13 in 2008 — have not been quite so auspicious, although he will return in February with The Bridges of Madison County. In the meantime, we can look forward to Honeymoon in Vegas, which opens a tryout Oct. 6 at the Papermill Playhouse.)

The Last Five Years, which examines the composer's first failed marriage, is not "early" Brown — it was written after Parade — but it feels youthful and is vastly enjoyable. It was not easy going, though. Commissioned by Lincoln Center Theater (which had produced Parade), the musical premiered in 2001 at the Northlight Theatre in Chicago with a cast consisting of Norbert Leo Butz and Lauren Kennedy. Following this production, things were tied up in a legal dispute: Brown's ex-wife, perhaps not unsurprisingly, didn't want her marriage so publicly dissected. (Brown's career had been instigated by Daisy Prince, who directed Songs for a New World, and father Hal, who directed Parade; the wife, Theresa O'Neill, was an actress who worked as an assistant at Hal's office.)

Betsy Wolfe
Photo by Joan Marcus

While tied up with the lawyers, The Last Five Years missed its scheduled production at Lincoln Center Theater — publicly so, with the entire matter spread across the newspapers. It was finally agreed that Brown would remove identifying traces; the heroine, for example, became a "Shiksa Goddess" rather than an Irish colleen. The show finally surfaced Off-Broadway in a commercial production. Butz was joined by Sherie Rene Scott, recently of Aida; Kennedy was by this point playing Nellie Forbush in Trevor Nunn's West End production of South Pacific. The Last Five Years opened at the Minetta Lane March 3, 2002.

Despite a favorable reception, this two-character musical about a bitter divorce proved a hard sell and closed after only 73 performances. The show's reputation, however, was cemented by the original cast album. This was the initial release of the Ghostlight label, founded — not coincidentally — by Scott with her husband, Kurt Deutsch.

Fast forward a decade. Second Stage produced a revival of The Last Five Years, directed this time by composer Brown himself, which opened March 7, 2013. The show again received a favorable reception and ran for two months. Ghostlight, as before, has issued an original cast album, and it's quite good. Betsy Wolfe, who had given an impressive performance Beth in the 2012 Encores! production of Merrily We Roll Along, was very good at Second Stage and remains so on CD. Adam Kantor comes across better on the CD than on stage, for me at least. After several hearings, I have become quite fond of this recording.

However, there is an issue that need be addressed. Namely, the original 2002 cast album. How can Kantor and Wolfe, or anyone, I suppose, possibly compare to the likes of Butz and Scott as they were all-but-bursting into full stardom? The 2002 album sounds like a bright new firecracker, set off by two explosive charges. The new album sounds like an excellent revival. See the problem?

So let us say that the new The Last Five Years is highly recommended to fans of the production, and to fans of the show who wish for a supplementary recording of the score. If you are looking for your first recording of the score, though, I don't see how I can counsel you to overlook Butz and Scott. (The folks at Ghostlight, i.e. Scott and her husband, presumably can't be surprised by this viewpoint.) Let me say, though, that if you don't already know Brown's The Last Five Years, you should certainly go to the Ghostlight website and buy one of 'em.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes" as well as “The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations,” “Second Act Trouble,” the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the “Opening Night on Broadway” books. He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)