Tuesday, January 29, 2008

review of *The Last Five Years*

at Spokane Civic Theatre, downstairs, through Feb. 17

What if you went through a passionate love affair and the subsequent breakup, only backwards? Your disillusioned self would laugh at the puppy in love; your young lover’s yearnings would scoff at the idea that passion like this could ever die.
Jason Robert Brown’s *The Last Five Years* (at the Civic’s Studio Theatre through Feb. 17) bends time like that to evoke wonder and disenchantment with love. Cathy, traveling backward in time, falls out of and into love; Jamie, progressing in regular chronological fashion, falls into love and then out of it.
The cross-plotting may sound like a gimmick, but the result embodies a bittersweet mood. Even in the midst of a love affair, we know it’s fleeting; even when we’re scalded by a bad breakup, at least we have some fond memories. Brown’s contrivance is incisive: For all the people who dismiss musical plays as hopelessly artificial, here’s a contemporary musical that’s honest and intimate and true.
The Civic’s production is perceptively directed by Yvonne A.K. Johnson and passionately sung and performed by Andrea Dawson and Robby French. As Jamie, the New York novelist whose career is taking off just as he meets this nice shiksa girl, a struggling actress from Ohio, Robby French has the easier job: His version of the story is the one told in chronological order. But French responds with the best work he has turned in locally: exuberant in love, rationalizing and defensive when he strays, he’s enacting the songs instead of merely presenting their emotions. French seems a bit overwhelmed by the rapid-fire demands of a tune called “Moving Too Fast,” but Brown may simply have written an overly demanding song. Besides, Brown springs surprises on us: What’s moving too fast isn’t Jamie and Cathy’s romance, but Jamie’s career. This is a guy who fixates on his job, using emotions to further his career, and French embodies Jamie’s contrasts well.
As Cathy, the small-town girl willing to pay her dues to make it as an actress in New York, Dawson is particularly good at depicting wonder and happiness. That serves her well (by contrast) in her audition scene, “Climbing Uphill,” when suddenly all he comic self-doubt comes pouring out — and in the show’s opening sequence, when she’s the one looking back with regret and sadness.
Brown’s five-year saga — passion gets turned on, then off — is so intently autobiographical that all its neuroses and emotional exhibitionism are fully on display. But he has written, composed and gotten himself all caught up in the details of his own journey that some scenes will resonate more for him than for audience members. (That time on the lake in Ohio? I guess you had to be there.)
But Johnson directs so as to maximize the tragicomic mood. She stages the last scene so as to echo the wedding (a scene in the show’s middle that offers its only duet). You know that kind of affectionate goodbye you say to someone you’ve just fallen in love with, and you keep coming back because you can’t wait to see your special someone tomorrow and the next day and the next? That’s the kind of goodbye we witness from the woman’s perspective in the play’s final scene. But in Brown’s time-twisted musical, the other character — the man who has made this journey in the usual order, from start to finish — is simply saying, forever, goodbye.
There are subtle parallels throughout that reveal a sure-handed director’s touch: At different junctures, both lovers teeter along a ledge, evoking the giddiness of being in love. Brown and Johnson will have Jamie puttering around his apartment while Cathy sings about him in hers (or the reverse). The effect is to keep separate these two flawed but likeable characters who, we’re hoping, will eventually work things out. Except that they don’t.

From her keyboard, musical director Carolyn Jess leads violin, cello and bass in some delightful musical mimicry. When Cathy gets depressed about her acting career, the music winds down too; when Jamie’s excited about his writing, the piano throbs with energy.
Brown’s tunes emulate Stephen Sondheim’s: lyrical in the moment, unmemorable after the fact, clever and witty and sometimes too much so. But their talkiness characterizes Cathy and Jamie well. The autobiographical particulars may clutter and confuse this show, but there’s no denying that we make an emotional journey with these two young lovers and emerge at the end with view of romance that’s wiser, jaded and refreshed all at once.
Between two living areas, set designer David Baker slashes a ramp rising to a versatile, neutral space; his projected slides nicely suggest the action of 14 shifting scenes. And when we see French’s and Dawson’s baby pictures, and then photos of their characters in love, we tend to go Aww, isn’t that nice? even though we’ve just witnessed their breakup. We all want to fall into — or stay — in love. Even when we know better, even when we know it won’t last.

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