Southern CA January 07, 2004
The Last Five Years
Reviewed By Les Spindle

"The Last Five Years"

Theater: 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach
Location: 318 Lincoln Blvd., Venice
Phone: (949) 497-2787.
Starts: January 03, 2004
Ends: February 01, 2004
Evenings: Tue.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 & 8 p.m. Sun. 2 & 7 p.m.
Price: $45-52.
Presented by: Laguna Playhouse

In 1970 Stephen Sondheim pioneered the "concept musical" with Company, eschewing conventional plot-development while achieving dramatic flow and thematic thrust through songs and minimal dialogue. Composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown (Parade, Songs for a New World), who is often compared to Sondheim, has attempted something even further removed from genre expectations. His 2002 Off-Broadway show falls somewhere between a song cycle and a chamber musical in charting the step-by-step disintegration of a marriage. Considering Brown's dark story and structural juxtapositions, a Pinteresque musical seems an ideal description. Although the eclectic pop-flavored score is sophisticated and melodic and the Laguna mounting boasts first-rate performances and production values, Brown's musical seems less compelling than intended. The rich and imaginative songs each tell a little story--which unfortunately becomes a liability. There's little sense of continuity in what is predominately a series of solo vignettes without a thread. The evening starts with the wife Catherine (Kim Huber) despondently reflecting at the end of the relationship, followed by the husband Jamie (Rick Cornette) cavorting in an exuberant Gene Kelly mode as he sings about their first meeting. His songs tell a forward-moving story, while hers progress backward. At times this device effectively juxtaposes moods, depicting the ups and downs of a relationship, but soon the downs outnumber the ups. The conflicts--professional rivalry, physical distance necessitated by careers, infidelity--border on the trite. Adding to the hollow effect, the spouses almost never speak or sing to each other. Witty lyrics provide sharp character nuances, but one wants to see the dramatic sparks in their relationship, not just hear about them. It's no accident that one of the best segments is the wedding scene, in which we finally see the characters relate to one another, albeit briefly. Nonetheless, there's great pleasure in watching and listening to Cornette and Huber. Cornette's singing voice is splendid, and he seems perfectly suited to Brown's story-song style, fleshing out the music and lyrics with limber body language and intelligent textual interpretation. He's especially engaging in "The Schmuel Song," a klezmer-like Jewish parable that becomes a comment on Catherine's crippling insecurity. Huber, who has most of the poignant moments, is a formidable song stylist and a fine actor. Her tales of bitterness and woe are balanced with a few upbeat numbers, highlighted by a humorous audition bit that recalls A Chorus Line. Narelle Sissons' classy modernistic set, incorporating marvelous projected images within a skeletal urban structure, is a visual delight yet never intrusive. Same goes for Paulie Jenkins' lovely lighting effects, Dwight Richard Odle's smart costumes, and Tom Griffin's smashing music direction as he leads a crackerjack six-member combo. Despite our reservations about the material, this finely crafted production, directed by Drew Scott Harris, is among Laguna Playhouse's most impressive accomplishments.

The Last Five Years