Orange County Weekly
Vol. 9 No. 18 January 9 - 15, 2004
Don’t Stop the Musical
Laguna Playhouse’s The Last Five Years
by Joel Beers
The Last Five Years should send discriminating theatergoers fleeing for anything—a
shot of Old Grand-Dad, a fistful of Vicodin, a hammer—to make them forget
what they’ve just experienced. It’s a musical, so that’s strike one on general
principles. It’s a pretty simple musical about two people who meet, fall
in love, develop, um, issues and break up, so that’s strike two for hackneyed.
It’s a play that says nothing novel or unique about relationships, love or
heartache. Strike three for intellectual resonance.
Why, then, is Jason Robert Brown’s 85-minute, two-person musical so powerful
and poignant? Could be that the composer, one of the hottest names in contemporary
American theater, is as talented as his press people claim. Even if The Last
Five Years doesn’t say anything new, Brown’s emotionally resonant music and
affecting lyrics do, lifting his musical from the self-inflicted limitations
of the dorky genre to genuine sophistication.
And Brown does it through the telling of a most simple story. Cathy, an aspiring
actress, falls in love with Jamie, an aspiring novelist. The two hurl themselves
at each other, marry, drift apart and eventually break up. That’s it.
It sounds like the script for all 24 hours of Oxygen every day. But Brown
casts the proceedings more dramatically by playing with chronology. We know
from the beginning that this union is doomed because we meet the heartbroken
Cathy (Kim Huber) at the end of the relationship; her songs travel back in
time and, by the end of the play, she is flushed with excitement at the prospect
of this new guy she’s met. Meanwhile, we meet Jamie (Rick Cornette) at the
other end of the relationship: he’s exhilarated over the non-Jewish woman
he’s just met. By play’s end, as Cathy warbles in wildly optimistic song
about her new love, Jamie is walking out the door.
It’s a dramaturgical gimmick, but damn if it doesn’t work.
Brown doesn’t spend a great deal of time on character. We know them as a
couple, but not as individuals—other than that they’re young, ambitious and
creative. But maybe that’s Brown’s ultimate point. We don’t know a lot about
Cathy and Jamie because they don’t know a lot about themselves, and that,
ultimately, makes it impossible for either to truly know the other. You see
that in Drew Scott Harris’ direction, with the characters moving on- and
offstage seemingly oblivious of one another. And you see it in Narelle Sisson’s
set design, all large rectangles cut in two by single, solid lines, giving
the impression that the playing area is surrounded by windows. But not windows:
these are geometrically imposing, harsh and rigid. The characters appear
trapped in sharp boxes. There is no sense of cohesion or fluidity—or room
That individual isolation seems to be the loose thread that hints at Cathy
and Jamie’s ultimate unraveling. It’s more opera than musical, more melancholic
and tragic than sunshine and saccharine. More real.
The Last Five Years at Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach,
(949) 497-ARTS. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7
p.m. Through Feb. 1. $45-$52; students half-price, except Fri.-Sat. evenings
and Sun. matinees.
The Last Five Years