Los Angeles Times
January 5, 2004

Some simple truths about love
Going opposite ways in time, a man and woman relive their life together in the local premiere of 'The Last Five Years.'

By Daryl H. Miller
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

She enters an empty apartment, sees a note and picks it up. Softly, she begins to sing, her voice hollow as she acknowledges the end of her marriage.

Mid-song, her soon-to-be-ex-husband enters the scene. He's in another place and time, however, and when she has finished singing, he lets out a whoop and launches into a giddy song about the girl he's just met.

Woman and man are singing about each other, but in the delicate song cycle "The Last Five Years," she moves backward in time, from breakup to meeting, while he experiences events in chronological order. The idea takes some getting used to in the California premiere of Jason Robert Brown's spare, 85-minute musical at Laguna Playhouse, but gradually, its logic becomes clear: Although these two people care deeply about each other, they rarely find themselves in the same place at the same time. Recognition arrives with a swift, silent gut-punch of emotion.

Brown, 33, is one in a small group of brainy, introspective songwriters considered the intellectual offspring of Stephen Sondheim. Others are Adam Guettel ("Floyd Collins"), Michael John LaChiusa ("Hello Again"), Jeanine Tesori ("Thoroughly Modern Millie") and Ricky Ian Gordon ("Only Heaven"). Brown experienced early success when he won a 1999 Tony Award for best score for "Parade," a dark but penetrating musical inspired by a 1915 lynching in Georgia. Southern California has had to wait for years to see that and other of Brown's shows, but finally, "Songs for a New World" was presented at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in July, and the Musical Theatre Guild performed "Parade" as a semi-staged concert in September.

The emotions in "The Last Five Years" come from personal experience. The words and music emerged from the dissolution of Brown's first marriage, cutting so close to the bone that his ex-wife sent lawyers to rattle their sabers. This discouraged a planned Lincoln Center Theater presentation and prompted a handful of changes between the piece's introduction near Chicago in 2001 and ultimate off-Broadway production in 2002.

Directed by Drew Scott Harris, the Laguna production is cast with two of the local musical theater scene's fastest-rising talents: Kim Huber, who played the sweet, social-climbing ingénue in Musical Theatre Guild's area premiere of Sondheim's "Saturday Night" and a pressed-into-service diner assistant in "The Spitfire Grill" at Laguna Playhouse, and Rick Cornette, a soulful, sexy presence in the Los Angeles premiere of Brown's "Songs for a New World."

Trim and attractive, they are mirror images, and their voices are similarly focused and pure. At Saturday's opening, both burrowed so deep into the songs that their voices occasionally caught with tears.

The show is performed without intermission, with woman and man alternately singing the folk-pop songs. At the back of the stage, blank windows evoke the impersonal void of New York City, against which the story of Cathy and Jamie unfolds. Just offstage sits a small orchestra: violin, two cellos, acoustic guitar, electric bass and keyboard, the last played by conductor-music director Tom Griffin.

The five years of the show's title take Cathy and Jamie from their early to late 20s, as he finds early success as a novelist and she struggles as an actress. Although they are different in many ways, love holds them together — when he's "off on a trip to Jamie-land, staring catatonic out the window, barely even breathing all the while" or when he's trying to convince her "if I didn't believe in you, we'd never have gotten this far."

Their progressions briefly overlap in the middle of the show. One Christmas, the Jewish Jamie invents a sweet, funny story — "The Schmuel Song" — to bolster Cathy's flagging career hopes. She sends her love in a humorous letter from the barrens of Ohio, where she is stuck playing summer stock. Then comes the proposal. They're boating in Central Park, and over a melody that shimmers like sunlight on the water he sings: "There are so many lives I want to share with you — I will never be complete until I do."

Their love is not a fairy tale. The breakup is simple and inevitable, a totally ordinary occurrence, really. Is that worth the effort the show sometimes requires? Not everyone will think so. But, surely, the simple truth will hit home as Cathy comes to the realization: "Maybe there's somewhere a lesson to learn, but that wouldn't change the fact, that wouldn't speed the time."

The Last Five Years