Coming and Going

Lovers meet each other coming and going in The Last Five Years, a poignant and inventive two-person musical now onstage at Plano Repertory Theatre. Writer-composer Jason Robert Brown uses just 14 songs and 90 minutes of brief vignettes to dramatize the romance between ambitious New York writer Jamie Wellerstein (Ric Leal) and insecure actress Catherine Hiatt (Jennifer Freeman). Brown won a Tony in 1999 for the musical Parade and this season bore some of the blame for the disastrous Broadway flop Urban Cowboy. The Last Five Years is a cross-pollination of operetta and song cycle; there is narrative but no dialogue. It's all sung, mostly in solos by the two leads, who occupy different spaces and times on their halves of the stage.

When the show begins, Catherine is slumped over a desk, a quivering, weepy mass. She sings "Still Hurting" after reading Jamie's heartbreaking kiss-off letter ending their marriage. But across the stage in the next song, Jamie is jumping for joy, exultant at having just met Catherine, the "Shiksa Goddess" of his dreams. She seems exotic to him, a change from the Jewish girls he's been dating. Sings Jamie, "I've had Shabbas dinner on Friday night with every Shapiro in Washington Heights."

The journey through Jamie and Catherine's tempestuous relationship includes episodes of passion, frustration and betrayal. Throughout the show, the two actors remain physically separated on the Plano Rep stage by set designer Russell Parkman's replica of a Central Park bridge that seems to span the troubled waters of the couple's doomed marriage. Hanging on each side of the bridge are smiling portraits of Jamie and Catherine, separated by a huge photograph of the fancy buildings lining Central Park West.

As the dual narratives unfold, each of Catherine's songs moves backward in the chronology of the story, ending the show with her first date with Jamie. Meanwhile, Jamie's songs move his side of the romance forward, toward an extramarital affair and then his divorce from Catherine. The characters meet only briefly midway through, uniting on the bridge center stage for a wedding scene that allows them to waltz for a few moments in the same spot on the time continuum. This one duet offers Freeman and Leal their only opportunity to connect physically and vocally, and it's a high point. For the second half of the show (there is no intermission), the characters switch sides of the bridge, as Jamie moves further into the present and Catherine retreats further into the past.

Confusing? Yes, a little. But absorbing, too. As the actors alternate songs, it's up to the audience to do some mental hopscotching to figure out where Catherine and Jamie are on the timeline and what they know or don't know about where their marriage is headed. Composer Brown, who has said in interviews that the show is based on the arc of his and his ex-wife's failed relationship, reveals everything about his two characters in the demanding libretto. The 14 songs reflect Jamie and Catherine's innermost thoughts, and they can be almost painfully confessional. Brown keeps the songs from becoming too grand by infusing them with humor and using conversational lyrics delivered in irregular rhythms. In "Summer in Ohio," Catherine sings:

I could shove an ice pick in my eye

I could eat some fish from last July

But it wouldn't be as awful as a summer in Ohio

Without cable, hot water, Vietnamese food or you.

There's something very Maurice Sendak about the way that scans.

At that point in the story, Catherine is doing theater on the road "with a midget playing Tevye." It's the young bride's first summer away from her new husband. The next song in the show, however, has Jamie tentatively proposing to her. In "The Next Ten Minutes," he sings:

Will you share your life with me

For the next ten minutes?

For the next ten minutes

We can handle that

We could watch the waves

We could watch the sky

Or just sit and wait

As the time ticks by

And if we make it till then

Can I ask you again for another ten?

For about 10 minutes after that on opening night, some members of the Plano Rep audience could be heard flipping through their programs in the dark, looking for clues to what the heck was going on. But really, that's the charm of The Last Five Years. It's all a bit of a guessing game, and just when we've figured it out, the show's over.

This is a fresh, experimental approach to musical theater that demands a little something extra from the observer. Brown's music is tuneful but challenging. His songs are verbose but never sentimental or syrupy, nor are they so filled with precocious internal rhymes and two-octave leaps that they come off like backyard Sondheim. Instead, The Last Five Years projects an abstract, artsy, off-Broadway-ness that translates just right to the intimate space at the Courtyard Theater.

Directed with a nice sense of symmetry by Rene Moreno, Plano Rep's production of The Last Five Years features extraordinary performances by its two lead singer-actors. Jennifer Freeman, so good as half of a set of singing conjoined twins in Theatre Three's production of Side Show, makes a beautiful, vulnerable Catherine. She has the difficult task of beginning the show at her character's emotional nadir, then rewinding Catherine's psychological disintegration to the moment years before when she first fell in love with Jamie and everything was rosy. Freeman's transformation as Catherine is subtle and graceful. In the opening scene, she's so choked with sadness she can hardly get out the words. By the end of the show, her Catherine looks, moves and even sings with a youthful, optimistic verve.

As Jamie, Ric Leal must go in the other direction, starting out as the love-smitten young suitor and ending up the cheating, ego-driven hound. Leal has a made-by-Mattel plasticity that works for the slickness of his nice-Jewish-boy-gone-bad character, and his good acting helps him put across a few songs that require high notes that seem just a tick out of his range. On opening night, Leal's performance was plagued by headset microphone problems that made both his and Freeman's voices snap, crackle and pop when they hit their upper registers.

In a musical that keeps its only two characters separated most of the time, Leal and Freeman still manage to cook up some chemistry that sizzles in their courtship and wedding scenes (choreographed nicely by Sara J. Romersberger). They look great together, these two, like a shiny blond Barbie and a black-haired Ken. In this show, the man gets the hubba-hubba scene, by the way. Jamie wears only tight black boxers to sing "Nobody Needs to Know" while stretched out on his mistress' bed. It's like the sexy "Call From the Vatican" number from Nine, only this time the man's coiled up half-naked in the sheets.

Accompanying Freeman and Leal onstage is a tight septet led by musical conductor and pianist Jeff Lankov (alternating with Buddy Shanahan). The deeply textured sounds of the violin played by Victor Koszman and cellos (John Landefeld and Dan Lewis) enrich the small ensemble and give it an orchestral boost.

Any weak spots in The Last Five Years, aside from the sometimes-awkward backward-forward structure of the storytelling, emerge from Brown's lyrics, which can fall into trite patterns. In one of Jamie's songs, "Moving Too Fast," comes this: My heart's been stolen/My ego's swollen/I just keep rollin' along. So tell it to Ol' Man River.

That's just a small quibble. For the most part, this is a musical that manages to get into an hour and a half what it takes most shows twice that long to express. Marked by two lovely performances by Freeman and Leal, The Last Five Years takes big risks, musically and emotionally, to tell parallel stories about the risky business of romance.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner

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