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Regional Reviews: Los Angeles

The Last Five Years

In a musical theatre landscape that has recently been dominated by musical comedies and plotless concerts, Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years is a breath of fresh air, reminding us that songs aren't just tools for earning laughs or showing off vocal prowess, but can propel a story forward and reveal truths about its characters.

The Last Five Years is all about musical storytelling. Stripped free of non-musical scenes, choreography, flashy design elements, and even a supporting cast, it is a bare-bones musical in which two characters alternate songs to reveal a story. The conceit of the musical is the order in which the story is told: one character progresses through the tale forwards, while the other starts at the end and works backwards.

The show opens with Kim Huber as Cathy coming home to discover her husband Jamie, played by Rick Cornette, has left her. Cathy reads the note left by Jamie and begins the song cycle with a mournful song of pain and loss for a marriage that has ended. The song segues into Jamie's opening number, a joyful song filled with his excitement at first meeting Cathy and thinking she might be the one.

The two songs neatly establish both endpoints of the relationship, and as the rest of the musical unfolds, we are shown the path Jamie and Cathy took and the choices they made which ultimately led to Jamie leaving the note that Cathy finds at the beginning of the show. Jason Robert Brown's lyrics tell a story that is more about character than action. True, there is an affair at the end of Jamie and Cathy's marriage; however, the infidelity isn't the cause of the destruction of their marriage, but rather an acknowledgement that the marriage is already irreparably broken. And the last piece of the puzzle does not fall into place until the final number, in which Cathy's happiness after a perfect first date with Jamie isn't simply a bittersweet epilogue to the show, but instead shows the seeds of a relationship that we know, with the benefit of hindsight, was doomed from the start.

Both Huber and Cornette have voices that can do this material justice. Huber occasionally oversings her songs, putting in extra effort to sound beautiful rather than concentrating on the character elements. But she is usually right on target, showing Cathy's playfulness, sexiness, anger, and frustration. And in her final two numbers, as Cathy moves further and further backward in time, Huber does a phenomenal job with the more immature Cathy, showing in her delivery Cathy's insecurities and neediness. Cornette's task is a little easier, since his character gets to evolve in chronological order. He, too, doesn't just sing the songs but plays them, starting off as a playful kid trying to win the girl of his dreams, and transitioning into an adult who realizes he isn't happy with everything he thought he wanted.

Director Drew Scott Harris makes various attempts to keep his actors from just standing downstage and singing, by staging each number with Cathy or Jamie singing to an invisible listener, or handling a prop. It's successful as far as it goes, but it doesn't quite go far enough. Both Huber and Cornette have moments where they "act out" the lyrics they're singing in a way which is wholly unrealistic. Cornette, for example, pretends he's taking punches when he sings, metaphorically, "I've been beaten; I've been hit." Nobody would actually do that when saying those words; it looks awkward for Cornette to do it when he's singing them.

On paper, the concept of the show seems extremely depressing. Having one partner tell the story backwards is no fun. How can we share in the joy of Jamie or Cathy's happiness when we see, in the very next moment, the other one experiencing betrayal or doubt? But there are surprising payoffs to telling the story in this fashion. The fact that Cathy and Jamie are nearly always out of synch is a strong metaphor for what ultimately causes their marriage to fail. And because Cathy and Jamie spend the bulk of the play never actually interacting with each other, the emotional impact of the one moment when their timelines actually cross is magnified.

The Last Five Years proves that the dramatic musical is alive and well.

The Last Five Years runs at the Laguna Playhouse through February 1, 2004.

The Laguna Playhouse -- Richard Stein, Executive Director; Andrew Barnicle, Artistic Director -- present The Last Five Years. Written and Composed by Jason Robert Brown. Scenic Design Narelle Sissons; Lighting Design Paulie Jenkins; Costume Design Dwight Richard Odle; Sound Design David Edwards; Production Manager Jim Ryam; Production Stage Manager Nancy Staiger. Musical Direction by Tom Griffin. Directed by Drew Scott Harris.

Photos by Ed Krieger

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