At 22, an age when most of us haven't yet decided what field we'll disappoint in, this kid's been staging and starring in musicals for more than four years, mostly sexed-up shows trucking in the sleazy tran-tastic: Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a memorable Rocky Horror and that neighbor-killing orgy Eating Raoul. Since last summer's winningly threadbare production of Debbie Does Dallas, Eubank has been AWOL. He jaunted off to New York City for the winter and then, once back, began helping out with other folks' shows. At the American Heartland, he pitched in on the hit Married Alive!, introducing his outsized gag sense to a pantsuit-and-mall-walking demographic his own shows don't usually hit. Meanwhile, at Late Night, he choreographed dizzying set pieces for The Birds.
Finally, just last week, KC got its first full-fledged Eubank production since his return.
It's all grown up. It's also kind of great.
The Last Five Years is a tuneful breakup story that gives equal time to both halves of its troubled couple. Like most recent musicals, it seems spliced together from other pop DNA. There's a strand of Groundhog Day and of Harold Pinter's Betrayal and maybe even a bit from Willie Nelson's his-'n'-hers divorce masterpiece, Phases and Stages. And because the pop we wallow in so confusingly overlaps with our actual lives, playwright Jason Robert Brown found himself slicing a song from The Last Five Years a few weeks before the show's 2002 premiere after his ex threatened to sue. It seems this inspired pastiche cut too close to what went down in their actual relationship.
That the material is familiar hardly matters, because the music, lyrics and performances are so compelling. Besides hammering truth and hurt into melody, Roberts' biggest inspiration is structural. He opens with Cathy (Katie Kester), a struggling actress, mourning the relationship that's just passed. Then Jamie (Dustin Stephen Cates), an ascendant young novelist, sings of its lighthearted beginnings. In alternating solo numbers, Cathy moves us through it backward, toward its happy start, while Jamie marches self-interestedly to the bitter dénouement.
This conceit sounds fussy but is emotionally resonant. For most of the show, the actors have nothing to do with each other, singing to each other's characters while alone onstage. Only on their wedding day, at the play's gorgeous center, do they intersect, treating us to a grand duet, then a lovely waltz before they resume their separate narration. The effect is both lovely and chilling. Only at that time, on that shared emotional plateau, do these two feel the same thing at the same time. They spend their lives with their ideas of each other, not the actual fact.
As Cathy, Kester is a marvel, wielding a four-alarm voice and smart comic chops. Her songs all soar, from her heartsick opener, "Still Hurting," to some amusing mid-relationship-patter numbers. With sad aplomb she navigates the tricky "I'm a Part of That," which describes the clutching-at-straws joy that Cathy feels when her sullen man cheers up once in a while. At play's end, she thrills at those first few dates with hopeful excitement that's more wrenching for us than the earlier breakup.
Cates is also good, but Kester has the plum role the show's structure guarantees that we identify with her more than him. Cates does good work with the funny "Shiksa Goddess" and the haunted "Nobody Needs to Know." But the lyrics in most of his songs lack Cathy's emotional complexity and widescreen choruses. He's burdened with the show's only groaners: "Moving Too Fast" is one of those faux-rock Broadway numbers that screams "Billy Joel" louder than Christie Brinkley ever did; and "The Schmuel Song" is a lump of sub-Fiddler shtetl fantasy that at times sounds exactly like "Afternoon Delight." That he's decked out in a horrid Christmas sweater doesn't help. I kept imagining I.B. Singer auditioning for 'Nsync.
For a character based on his author, Jamie is surprising unlikable, which I'm not sure is intentional. He isn't plagued by self-doubt, and he's not drawn as vividly as Cathy. The details of his success he's excerpted in The Atlantic, at 24, "without rewriting a word" seem more like the stuff of barista daydreams than real-world publishing. That said, his claim to being lauded by John Updike in The New Yorker is believable because, as Updike's poem "The Beautiful Bowel Movement" (excerpt: "a masterpiece: a flawless coil, unbroken, in the bowl") makes clear, that guy will write up anything.
Minor problems aside, Eubank has staged his best show yet, a mature examination of love and time handled with impressive sensitivity. There's no set to speak of, but instead of seeming like a money-saving compromise, the black-box approach ensures that nothing distracts us from the emotional fireworks. Jayson Chandley's creative lighting heightens the alternating moods of warmth and isolation, and the six-member orchestra, led by the gifted Daniel Doss, vamps and swells movingly.
Though not perfect, Robertson's musical is certainly important. Like The Light in the Piazza, it's a demonstration that, even in this unwieldy genre, truth and beauty can duet. Robertson even manages to work some hope into the sadness. At the climax, the bring-a-hanky "Goodbye," Jamie has left Cathy, and Cathy is exchanging giddy goodbyes with the man she's just gone out with. Recognizing ourselves in them both, we're simultaneously stung and stirred we hurt. But we also shiver with the all-over fizz of new love, and we know that it's worth whatever pain awaits.