Theater review
"The Last Five Years"

Both sides now
Love story 'Last Five Years' puts whole new twist on time

Daily Herald Correspondent

If you follow contemporary music theater you know the name Jason Robert
Brown. He's the young (just turned 30), hot composer who won a Tony last
year for his work on the musical "Parade."

I never saw "Parade," the show closed quickly on Broadway, but I did see
Brown's 1995 musical revue, "Songs for a New World," which played at Apple
Tree several seasons ago, and I was not particularly impressed.

Brown showed he had a great range as a composer; Songs for a New World
contained a bluesy number, a gospel number and a waltz.

But the evening, at least in the Apple Tree production, lacked heart. It
felt more like a show-off than a show.

There was nothing in this revue to prepare me for "The Last Five Years," a
sweet, wonderful, satisfying meditation on a marriage gone wrong currently
being staged at Northlight Theatre in Skokie.

Through Brown's moving music and clever lyrics we see a five-year
relationship from both sides, the girl's and the guy's, and from both ends:
the hopeful beginning and the painful ending.

This alone, given the quality of Brown's music, would be enough. There are
songs in this show to break your heart, they are so sublime.

But Brown, because he is wrapped up in the high stakes, gotta-have-a-gimmick
world of New York theater, has added an additional twist to his show. The
couple is out of sync, literally.

At the top of the show, we see the girl, a pretty but not particularly
successful Irish-American actress, Kathleen, at the end of her relationship
with Jamie, a talented, rising Jewish writer.

Her sad ballad mourns the end of it all. Jamie has moved out and she yearns
for him to come back to try one more time. From that point on, her songs
chronicle the relationship in reverse order, from "now to then," as the
program puts in.

In contrast, Jamie, sings from "then to now." His first song is one of those
glorious, gee-I-think-you-are-swell songs that marks the hopeful beginning.

This kind of premise is the sort of idea that has sunk many lesser talents.
And even Stephen Sondheim and English playwright Tom Stoppard stumbled when
they played chronological games in "Merrily We Roll Along" and "Artist
Descending a Staircase" respectively.

But Brown's songs are so strong they don't need a gimmick. They are even
strong enough to survive the show's premise, though it is frustrating that
the couple never sings together - or even interacts that much.

I know the point is that this mismatched couple were isolated from each
other from the beginning. They both are in their own way wounded, selfish
people; he's almost totally involved in his blossoming career and she's
wrapped up in her own problems. But there are ways to communicate that
without having them ever sing a satisfying duet.

This is doubly frustrating because director Daisy Prince has found two
excellent singer/actors to play Brown's couple. Blonde, lithe Lauren Kennedy
seems every inch the sweet, well-meaning but needy wife.

And Norbert Butz is totally convincing as a kind of jerk, the young talented
man on the make, totally wrapped up in his career and loving all of the
perks that come with success, including abandoning his wife for "important"
cocktail parties and even a casual affair or two.

The two seem made for each other: she gives and gives and he takes and
takes. And by the end of the show I was as surprised as Kathleen was that it
was over.

These two seasoned Broadway actors (Butz appeared on Broadway in "Rent,"
Kennedy in "Side Show") have nice, strong, clear voices that easily fill the
Northlight space with a joyful noise. How nice it would have been to hear
these two sing a duet together.

But that's just a minor complaint about a show that left me feeling glad I
went to the theater.

Final note: the Northlight production is the world premiere of this new
musical and scads of New Yorkers, ravenous to hear and see the next big
Broadway thing, have reportedly been coming to Chicago specifically for this
show. My point: tickets are hard to come by, so if you are interested, make
your reservations quickly.

The Last Five Years