In The Last Five Years, having its premiere at Chicago’s Northlight Theater, composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown manages something just as hard; he turns a modest, 80-minute, two-character musical into a richly satisfying emotional journey. It starts with a narrative gimmick. A man and woman tell the story, in alternating musical numbers, of their five-year relationship. She tells it backward in time; he tells it forward. She begins at the rueful end of a marriage and moves toward the love-struck beginning. He opens as a giddy guy going on a date and winds up the betrayer.
The dual narrative strands, beautifully woven by director Daisy Prince, add a layer of irony and melancholy to what otherwise might have seemed a pretty routine story. Jamie (Norbert Leo Butz) is a Jewish writer on the rise; Kathleen (Lauren Kennedy) is an Irish-Catholic actress whose career never takes off. There are clever interludes an audition in which we hear Kathleen’s inner turmoil, set to the melody of the song she’s performing and unabashedly romantic ones, like a mock Russian folktale that Jamie sings to his beloved on her birthday. The show is too sketchy in spots, particularly in its portrayal of Kathleen. But Brown’s music (lushly orchestrated with Brown himself on piano) is the least arid and most accessible of the scores turned out by his generation of Sondheim disciples. This is smart, lyric-driven music that doesn’t abandon melody or variety. One number rocks; another harks back to ’30’s Tin Pan Alley. And a wistful, turn-of-the-century-style waltz sends you out of the the theater with a lovely, warm-hearted souvenir. Most of the souvenirs at The Producers cost 20 bucks.