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 affair.                        
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 past generation).

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 poles.

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