“I’m breaking my mother’s heart / And my grandfather’s rolling in his grave ... .” Jamie, a young, ambitious writer sings with energetic sarcasm about breaking out of his Midwestern Jewish family circle, “Finally breaking through / Waiting for someone like you ... Hey hey shiksa goddess / I’ve been waiting for someone like you / You, breaking the circle / You are the story I should write ...” —as he embarks towards the distant horizon of his new life.
All the while, Cathy is moving in the opposite direction, beginning five years after they meet, picking up a notepad on a stool—two of the few scenic elements in the Masquers Playhouse production of Jason Robert Brown’s almost completely sung duo musical of the course—and reflux—of a relationship, The Last Five Years.
The notepad has a goodbye note scribbled on it. Against Jamie’s boisterous excitement, Cathy’s mood is wistful, elegiac even, yet acerbic: “Jamie is over, there’s nowhere to turn.” The pitch goes up; she sings bitterly that it’s time to “run away / Run and find something better,” a little staccato against the sonorous instrumentation of Pat King on piano, leading a chamber group of bass, guitar, violin and cello, just visible at the back of the stage, but close enough to be felt everywhere, like the omnipresence of the music in a nightclub.
The two are moving in time cross-grain to each other in mood and awareness. Mostly it’s contrasting songs, or a tradeoff, coming from different places. When they cross paths, the singing seems to bend a little, over the music, like a lyrical Doeppler Effect. And they rush—or slog—on.
A few years back, when William Bolcom and Joan Morris were in town, performing their history of American song at that year’s Ernst Bloch Lectures at the UC Department of Music, their last program was entitled “Towards an American Cabaret.” It dealt out the songs and anecdotes of both native efforts and the role of European emigre composers and musicians in establishing the urbanity of art song and cabaret in the often-provincial musical setting of American life, public and private—and explored the trajectory, a little, of the post-Sondheim musical that slowly usurped, along with pop music, the role of Tin Pan Alley, which had provided the standards for everything from at-home sing-a-long song sheets, to Broadway, to jazz bands.
The Last Five Years is a child of that movement, a spin-off of that trajectory. The five years in question—has that been the standard length of a serious romance for a while now, as standardized as the renewable commercial lease was, or the old Soviet Five Year Plan?—are 1997-2002. The young people who grow up so quickly and slip past each other, one in orbit, the other retrograde, are both in showbiz—or The Media—he an author, she an aspiring actress, but the glitz at the end of the tunnel doesn’t make them any less ordinary. In fact, they come into adulthood, career choices and love during a time when the arts and entertainment had become more than just a personal dream, a social relaxation, a regional industry, but a metaphor for society—Arts & Entertainment aspired to be the postmodern image of society itself, and the fountainhead of careers, lifestyles, not just self-expression, or pastime or hobby.
(The cause of the preemptory scorn and dismissal of The Last Five Years by another East Bay reviewer could be the deliberate confusion of banalities people usually try to escape through music and song—whether practicing it or just listening, humming along—with the songs, the shows themselves, the ambition to make them and make a life out of what expressed the unrealized longings, the failures of ordinary existence. Here, the protagonists express both hope and ambition, frustration and failure as they mistake each other, ream out the possibilities in their ordinary existences by being practicitioners of that very thing, that special form of expression. There’s something in this akin to blaming the messenger for the message.)
In the case of the show at the Masquers, the messengers do themselves proud. Danny Cozart as Jamie captures the boyish energy and charm—and self-absorption—as he sings “Moving Too Fast” (“I found a woman I love / And I found an agent who loves me ... I’ve got a singular impression things are moving too fast.”) and later an ambidextrous self-justifying streak (“I will not lose / Because you think you can’t win”), which culminates in his writing and leaving the note on the stool Cathy opened the play reading. And Jennifer Ekman’s Cathy bravely goes to her auditions (“I’m a Part of That”), struggling to overcome her self-effacement (“See I’m Smiling” and “I Can Do Better Than That”), and passes from bitterness at the end to the hope of new love at the beginning, singing “Goodbye Until Tomorrow” while Jamie, having gone from beginning to end, sings “I Could Never Rescue You,” a disparate duet, one of three in a show more song cycle than play.
Director and scenic designer Daren A. C. Carollo, his assistant director and costume designer Dana Zook, and lighting designer David Lam have kept the design spare, accenting the sense of intimacy the director says made him think of the Masquers Playhouse for this show. The rich harmonies of the strings, driven by Pat King’s piano, are scenery enough. The sparsity of decor and the absence of supporting cast concentrate the production and lend it just a touch of irony—an art of silence, not attitude.
THE LAST FIVE YEARS
8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays through May 2 at Masquers Playhouse, 105 Park Place, Point Richmond. $18. 232-4031. www.masquers.org.