Posted: Tue., Jan. 6, 2004, 2:30pm PT

The Last Five Years

(Laguna Playhouse, 420 seats; $52 top) A Laguna Playhouse presentation of a musical in one act with music, lyrics and book by Jason Robert Brown. Directed by Drew Scott Harris. Musical direction, Tom Griffin.
Band: Tom Griffin, Valerie Geller, Karen Linkletter, Stephen Green, Ernie Hernandez, Randy Gravett.

In one of Jason Robert Brown's superb songs for his virtually sung-through mini-musical "The Last Five Years," the male character Jamie cries, "Everybody bleeds." This creatively defines Brown himself, and his ability to cut deep below a character's surface and extract painful, recognizable truths. The show, having its California premiere, deservedly won two Drama Desk Awards in 2002, as Brown, a consummate master of melody and lyric, captures every facet of a failed marriage, from early, ecstatic expectations to the final days of disillusionment and despair.

The composer-author, 1999 Tony winner for his "Parade" score, achieves this in the unorthodox manner of having his two leads come at the relationship from opposite points of view. Jamie (Rick Cornette), a young Jewish novelist, charts the course of their love from the beginning, and his "shiksa goddess," Catherine (Kim Huber), does so from the end.

Catherine's first song, "Still Hurting," has particular resonance after she finds a note from Jamie that officially terminates their union. It's typical of Brown's depth that he expresses realistically contradictory sentiments, as Catherine simultaneously mourns the end of her marriage with "something wonderful died" and at the same time sings, "covered with scars I did nothing to earn."

Against Narelle Sissons' effectively sparse set, consisting of raised platform, two chairs and a backdrop of windows from a high-rise, the two stars do full justice to Brown's rhythmic shifts and challenging high notes.

Cornette is called upon to handle a role that requires him to be boyish, loving, unfaithful, narcissistic and well-meaning, and he molds all these elements into a moving and human personality. Whether leaping around with junior high school glee at the prospect of romance, or having affairs as the marriage deteriorates, he retains our sympathy and understanding.

Huber faces an even tougher challenge, because Catherine has a tendency to be self-pitying. She surmounts this with a warmly attractive presence, a clear, lilting voice and a complete lack of affectation. Huber brings to mind a character in Mary McCarthy's "The Group," in which the heroine invests all her dreams in her husband's career, then feels shorn of her identity. Huber layers intensity on a similar sentiment when she sings, "I will not be the girl who gets asked how it feels/to be trotting along at the genius' heels."

The most extraordinary aspect of Brown's score is its edgy, freewheeling humor. When Jamie picks a girl who would "have my grandfather rolling in his grave," or Catherine bemoans the fact that a piano player hates her, the laughter is accomplished without resorting to caricature. Director Drew Scott Harris encourages the actors to let lines play naturally, never milking them with phony overstatement.

Musically, Brown weaves a funky pop sensibility with traditional Broadway harmonies. Tom Griffin rates plaudits for musical direction, and for his fast, fluid keyboard work on such compositions as "Moving Too Fast"; Karen Linkletter and Stephen Green bring lush warmth to their ample cello parts. More than most bands, this six-piece section complements every emotion onstage, and incites a desire to buy the SH-K-Boom Records original cast recording featuring Brown as conductor and pianist.
Sets, Narelle Sissons; lighting, Paulie Jenkins; costumes, Dwight Richard Odle; sound, David Edwards; production stage manager, Nancy Staiger. Opened Jan. 3, 2004; reviewed Jan. 4.; runs through Feb. 1. Running time: 1 HOUR, 25 MIN.

The Last Five Years