Singing songs of love and loss
By Evan Henerson
L.A. Daily News
A MAN and a woman -- he's a hot novelist, she's a struggling actress -- recap
their relationship from first meeting to breakup. His account is told chronologically
forward from his first glance, hers in reverse from receiving the "Dear John'
letter. They converge only once: at their wedding.
The musical is titled "The Last Five Years' and lasts barely 90 minutes,
which isn't a lot of time to pack in a half-decade worth of boy meets/loses
girl. Still, composer Jason Robert Brown is routinely accomplishing little
miracles in the five to six minutes it takes his characters to sing a song.
His songs are no mere ditties: They're polished narrative diamonds. And in
"Last Five Years' ' California premiere at the Laguna Playhouse, Rick Cornette
and Kim Huber sing the pants off them.
Those fortunate to catch Brown's lesser-known "Songs for a New World' last
year at the Los Angeles Theatre Center witnessed what the composer could
do with themes of hope and despair. Clearly the man knows something about
his-'n'-her heartache as well ("The Last Five Years' is based on the breakup
of Brown's first marriage, which apparently didn't sit well with the composer's
Pulling off a balancing act that never seems too pat, Brown lets us see Jamie
Wellerstein (Cornette) and Cathy Hiatt (Huber) at their best and worst. A
crushed Jamie reads her goodbye letter and sings -- in "Still Hurting' --
"Jamie is over, Jamie is gone. Jamie decided it's time to move on.' Then
-- zing! -- we're with Jamie, five years earlier, serenading his "Shiksa
Goddess' (that would be Cathy) with all the giddiness of a besotted 13-year-old.
Cornette and Huber are both experts in the art of freneticism, and director
Drew Scott Harris gives them plenty of room with which to indulge it. Cornette
-- who also starred in the LATC "Songs for a New World' -- brings a charismatic
smugness to Jamie. Yes, the man is clearly going places. Yes, it would be
nice if he took a breath and paid better attention to what his less-confident
wife is going through. Later the same story flips, and, in true "he said/she
said' synchronicity, Cathy comes off as the selfish neurotic.
But is she? Given the musical's structure, the characters catch up to their
descriptions, meaning we will meet the Cathy that Jamie fell in love with
as well as the Jamie who has screwed Cathy over.
Regardless of whose side you end up taking, it's quite clear that both of
these characters have great capacity for love. Here again, Brown's music
serves them beautifully from the Cathy's heartbreaking "A Summer in Ohio'
to a peculiar little lullaby/pep talk called "The Schmuel Song' that Jamie
sings to Cathy. It concludes, simply and poignantly, "Have I mentioned today
how lucky I am to be in love with you?'
The action plays out within a minimalist, three-sided cube (designed by Narelle
Sissons) backed by a large bank of windows. Slide projections establish the
scene. Dwight Richard Odle's smartly contemporary costumes help further define
who these characters are and what they're about.
Huber and Cornette, whose performances don't depend on reciprocal chemistry
(since they only sing together once), are alternately funny, witty, vulnerable
and maddeningly insecure -- in short, quite human. The brief time spent in
their company is more than worth the price and the commute.
And Brown's wonderful score -- the show's real star -- figures to have a
life span well beyond five years.
The Last Five Years