Monday, January 5, 2004
'Five Years' down memory lane
A smart new chamber musical plays with time as it looks at the arc of a love
By PAUL HODGINS
The Orange County Register
The Laguna Playhouse has grown adept at searching for gems (or at least semi-precious
stones) that Southern California's bigger regional theaters either don't
know or don't care about. One sub-specialty is the small-scale musical. "Violet,"
"I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change," "The Last Session" and several
others have received worthwhile productions and found appreciative Laguna
audiences in recent seasons.
Jason Robert Brown's "The Last Five Years," which made its California premiere
Saturday at the playhouse, certainly fits that category, though it differs
from the others in one crucial respect: It's already a well-established hit
on the regional circuit, racking up more productions this season and last
than any new musical in recent memory.
Modest in its demands (two performers on a bare-bones unit set) yet thematically
ambitious, "The Last Five Years" traces the half-decade arc of a passionate
but doomed love affair from both the male and the female perspective. Brown
offers a temporal twist reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll
Along": The woman starts her story at the end of their romance, the man at
the beginning. Chronologically, the pair follow opposite paths, and they
sing an extended duet only once - when they meet at the altar.
Brown admits that plotting is not his strong point, and it's the musical's
weakest element, especially in the beginning, when too much effort is spent
connecting the dots between Catherine's and Jamie's contrasting story lines.
We get it more easily than Brown thinks we will. And there's an air of leaden
inevitability to the second half of the story, when we already know how things
begin and end. Brown doesn't throw any curve balls at us. A few denied expectations
would have been welcome.
There's another shortcoming. If you have little patience for the self-absorption
and whiny insecurities of young, struggling artists, "The Last Five Years"
may be a difficult 90 minutes to endure. Novelist Jamie, particularly, isn't
easy to like as his burgeoning career takes over his life.
Brown's gifts as a composer and lyricist, though, can't be denied. Like Sondheim
(the composer he was chosen to replace in "Parade"), Brown has an uncanny
talent for wedding text and music to precise emotional sentiment. Like the
late, great Jonathan Larson, Brown is hip to recent musical trends (Sondheim,
for all his genius, ignores most of popular music's developments over the
Songs like Jamie's "Shiksa Goddess" and Catherine's "Summer in Ohio" are
wonderful gifts to the performers, allowing them to delve into the nitty
gritty of their characters within the confines of song. Since most are solos,
Brown uses interior monologue - sometimes hilariously, sometimes with dark
undertones - and develops clever ways to let the characters "talk" to each
other (though you have to pay attention to see how certain lyrics from different
songs dovetail together).
Both performers do a superb job of conveying their characters' emotional
temperature and state of mind - crucial in a plot that keeps us jumping back
and forth in terms of time and point of view. As Catherine, Kim Huber begins
the show in a deep funk. Her strained, defeated voice reveals a woman whose
hopes to rekindle a foundering marriage have been completely dashed. Rick
Cornette's Jamie, on the other hand, is practically bouncing off the walls
in glee at the prospect of beginning a new relationship with the woman of
his dreams. One of the evening's principal pleasures is watching these finely
calibrated performances approach the central wedding scene from opposite
Cornette owns a terrific singing voice that handles stratospheric heights
and growling lows with equal ease. Huber's is a quieter presence, but she
unleashes hidden reserves of her own, especially in comic moments. Director
Drew Scott Harris does well at times such as these, though his staging can
seem static and curiously undramatic during scenes of high drama, such as
Jamie's "If I Didn't Believe in You."
In a stripped-down staging such as this, Paulie Jenkins' lighting, rather
than Narelle Sissons' set, underscores changes of mood and nicely delineates
two different but simultaneous universes.
Conductor and keyboardist Tom Griffin leads a six-piece onstage band that
includes two cellos, a violin, a guitar and a bass, all of them equal to
the score's often tricky demands. The paired cellos add burnished warmth,
complexity and poignancy to Brown's style, which can be sharp-edged and even
atonal at times. The orchestration shares the same strength as Brown's story:
It carries a surprising emotional wallop that belies its size.
The Last Five Years