For Cathy, it’s the end of a relationship. For Jamie, it’s only the start.

Thus begins Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years, a look at a marriage gone sour—from two points of view, moving two different directions in time.

The Last Five Years is my very favorite chamber musical, one I’ve now seen in ten different productions, most recently in a semi-concert staging at Brea’s Curtis Theater, starring two of Los Angeles musical theater’s brightest young rising stars, Lisa Livesay and Jason Evans, and directed by Michael Skidgel.

Some TL5Ys are as much directors’ showcases as they are opportunities for the production’s two stars to shine. Skidgel places the emphasis firmly on the music. There are no costume changes. Most songs follow basically the same format. She sings. He sits on a bench facing upstage. He sings. She sits on the same bench looking away from the audience. Only at the show’s midpoint, Cathy and Jamie’s wedding day, do the two performers interact in the same time frame.

Livesay brings an incandescent loveliness to Cathy, from her heartbreaking opening number, “Still Hurting,” to the joyous optimism of Cathy’s last (i.e. first) song, “Goodbye Until Tomorrow.” In “I’m Still Smiling,” Livesay captures the mixed emotions of a woman hoping against hope for her marriage to survive and railing against a man who won’t even stay with his wife “on her fucking birthday.” “I’m A Part Of That” is Cathy’s attempt to find some satisfaction in being the wife of a celebrity author. In “A Summer In Ohio,” Livesay is an absolute delight as she sings about doing summer stock “with a gay midget named Karl, playing Tevia and Porgy,” and she nails Cathy’s audition sequence—hilariously—in a way that will resonate with anyone who’s ever tried out for a musical with a lousy accompanist or a padded résumé. “I Can Do Better Than That” is Cathy’s vow that her budding relationship with Jamie will be better than any of the failed ones she’s had before. Whether singing in her exquisite soprano or belting with the best of them, Livesay’s performance is one to remember.

Evans matches her every step of the way, sounding gorgeous and looking every bit the Jewish “nernk” that the ideal Jamie should be. (That’s an amalgam of “nerd” and “hunk.”) Since Jamie gets to start with upbeat, up-tempo songs as opposed to Cathy’s initially mournful ballads, he invariably gets the first applause, and Evans is no exception with the clever, funny “Shiksa Goddess,” which has Jamie “waiting through Danica Schwartz and Erica Weiss and the Handelman twins and Heather Greenblatt, Annie Mincus, Karen Pincus and Lisa Katz and Stacy Rosen, Ellen Kaplan, Julie Silber and Janie Stein” on his way to the “cute goyishe maid” called Cathy Hyatt. “Moving Too Fast” is Jamie’s ode to the fast life of an up-and-coming writer who’s found “a woman I love” and “an agent who loves me.” “The Schmuel Song” is Jamie’s tour-de-force Christmas/Chanukah number, and Evans sings it (and impersonates the elderly Russian Jewish Tailor of Klimovich) to perfection. There shouldn’t be a dry eye in the house at Evans’ poignant interpretation of “If I Didn’t Believe In You,” Jamie’s last-ditch effort to convince Cathy he’s on her side and “Nobody Needs To Know,” sung to the woman he’s cheating on Cathy with, feeling guilty as hell about, and unable to resist.

Livesay and Evans bring real chemistry to their sole wedding day interaction with the profoundly moving “The Next 10 Minutes,” and if anyone can stay dry eyed when Cathy sings “I’m not always on time. Please don’t expect that from me. I will be late but if you can just wait, I will make it eventually” to my personal favorite TL5Y melody, that person should seek heart therapy.

It took ten The Last Five Years productions for me to finally hear Jason Robert Brown’s original arrangements for a six-piece orchestra, superbly performed on stage at the Curtis Theatre by music director Dean Erick on piano, Nolan Livesay (violin), Steve Velez (cello I), Esther Black (cello II), Jay Leach (guitar) and Carlos Rivera (bass).

My only quibble with Skidgel’s nicely understated direction is in “The Schmuel Song” (and for a few moments later in the show) when he has Jamie touch Cathy, contact that should be reserved for the wedding sequence alone. While it is fine to have Cathy facing upstage towards Jamie during songs, the two characters are in separate time zones, and that should mean no touching except on their wedding day. End of quibble.

Kris Kataoka has created an excellent lighting design which compliments each of the show’s many changing moods. Erick and Skidgel’s simple but elegant set design and the basic white shirts and pants worn by actors and musicians (all shoeless) give the production a casual yet classy look.

Sadly, there will be no third performance of Lisa Livesay and Jason Evans starring in The Last Five Years. It was a Friday night opening and a Saturday night closing. Those present on one or the other of these two stellar evenings can count themselves lucky indeed.

–Steven Stanley
June 26, 2010

Curtis Theatre, Brea

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