Singing songs of love and loss

By Evan Henerson
Theater Critic
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 ex-wife).

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