The world premiere of librettist-lyricist-composer Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years has been extended to July 1 at Northlight Theatre in Skokie, IL, following rave reviews in the Chicago dailies.
Norbert Butz and Lauren Kennedy are the singing marrieds in the intimate 80-minute musical, which opened May 23 at Northlight. In their glowing reviews, senior Chicago critic Richard Chistiansen of the Tribune, and Hedy Weiss of the Sun-Times, seemed to be egging on commercial producers, inviting a future production following the regional nonprofit debut. The piece was originally written for Lincoln Center, and presumably its future is in the hands of that producing giant.
"Exhilaration, so intense that it brings tears of joy, is at hand in the premiere of The Last Five Years at Northlight Theatre," Christiansen wrote in his first paragraph.
Tony Award-winning composer-lyricist Brown is best known for the Harold Prince-directed Parade (which earned the writer a Best Score Tony) and the Off-Broadway revue, Songs for a New World, directed by Daisy Prince, Hal's daughter. The younger Prince also directed The Last Five Years. Although Brown is divorced, he said the work is not autobiographical.
Between May 25-27, the musical "sold more tickets in a single weekend than any other Northlight production ever at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie," a spokesman said. It's "the second fastest starter" to Northlight's all-time box office record-holder in its 26 year history, Always Patsy Cline in 1994. Performances of The Last Five Years were originally announced to run to June 24. Previews began May 16.
The two-person tuner follows the relationship of a "nice Jewish boy" and an Irish Catholic girl in New York City. During a five year period, they fall in love, marry and their bond loosens into divorce. Tom Murray musical directs. Brown is in residence at Northlight during the run of the staging, and conducts the six piece band (and plays piano).
Insiders say the show is crafty and on a small enough physical scale that it will eventually be a hot property on the regional theatre market.
Butz appeared as Roger in Rent on Broadway, toured as the Emcee in Cabaret and was featured in the recent Off-Broadway staging of Saved. Kennedy's credits include the recent Arlington, VA, staging of The Rhythm Club, Broadway's Side Show and Sunset Boulevard in New York and Los Angeles and tour.
The conceit of The Last Five Years has the woman, Kathleen, an actress, beginning her story at the end of the relationship and working her way back, and Jamie, a novelist, starting from the first date and working forward. They sing together only once, in the middle of the play, at their wedding.
"I find it incredibly close to the bone, especially being a performer myself," observed Northlight artistic director B.J. Jones. "This deals with an actress and a novelist. When one career takes off and the other doesn't, I think that's close to the bone for anyone in this day and age of two-career partnerships. All the while, it's very funny and the structure has a wonderful sort of counterpoint quality; it makes each song more resonant because of where it lies in the journey."
Jewish and Irish musical themes are woven with contemporary pop and Broadway sounds to create a multicultural urban atmosphere.
Brown was music director of Dinah Was, which Northlight presented in 1998-99. Subsequently, he accepted Northlight artistic director Jones' offer of the 350-seat Skokie Northlight venue for the premiere of a vest-pocket musical. Brown was working on a two-person show for Lincoln Center that the New York non-profit wasn't ready to do, and Brown and Lincoln Center said Northlight could test it. The show turned out to be The Last Five Years, which has some spoken dialog in it, but is mostly sung-through.
The design team is Beowolf Boritt (set and costumes), Chris Binder (lighting) and Rob Milburn, Michael Bodeen and Ray Nardelli (sound).
Northlight Theatre has a $2.1 million annual budget and is the resident producing theatre (using two venues) at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, at 9501 N. Skokie Blvd. in Skokie. The troupe has 9,000 subscribers.
For information, call (847) 673-6300 or try the web site at http://www.northlight.org.
— By Kenneth Jones