The Chicago Tribune
Richard Christiansen

Exhilaration, so intense that it brings tears of joy, is at hand in the premiere of "The Last Five Years" at Northlight Theatre.

This two-person, 80-minute musical, bursting with newfound talent, is a triumph for everyone involved: for Northlight, in getting first crack at it and giving it a classy production; for its two luminous principals, Lauren Kennedy and Norbert Leo Butz, who sing it to the heavens; for director Daisy Prince, who has staged it with a sensitivity and imagination that increases its already potent emotion; and for composer Jason Robert Brown, who wrote it out of his own life and who has created for it a constant stream of extraordinary, jubilant theater music.

His story, all in song, tells of the five-year rise and fall of the love between Jamie and Kathy, an ambitious Jewish writer and an aspiring Irish actress who meet, fall deeply in love, marry, grow apart and separate. His career booms, hers is never to be so grand. His faith turns to infidelity, her devotion becomes frustration.

Reminiscent in some respects of such stories as "A Star Is Born" and "Merrily We Roll Along," Brown’s semi-autobiographical tale is nonetheless unique in the way it unfolds.

Kathy begins her story at the sad end of the marriage; Jamie starts his account at the happy beginning. Occasionally interacting with each other, but always singing solo, they work their way toward the middle of the show, which is their wedding, and there, for the first time, they sing a duet, a heartbreaking hymn of trust and commitment.

After that turning point, Jamie moves in his solos toward the end of the affair and Kathy journeys toward the beginning, until at the final moment, in a brilliant, fleeting stage image, they cross paths for the last time.

With the use of a turntable, the musical is played out in seamlessly joined scenes against designer Beowulf Boritt’s background of a fractured circle decorated with wedding ceremony seating and floral arrangements. Behind a curtain on the right, Brown, at the piano, leads his orchestra of guitar, violin, bass and two cellos.

The piano-playing is the musical’s strong pulse, a force unto itself in propelling the action and the acting. Butz as Jamie and Kennedy as Kathy respond to it with all-out dynamism, weaving together the big climaxes and the gentle diminuendos of the score. Lyric ballads, jazzy patter bits, grand arias and even a lovely little Jewish folk tale, sung at Christmas, are unspooled in an effortless flow of music.

Stunning as individual numbers, the songs also are strengthened as connected companion pieces. The show begins, for example, with Kathy reading Jamie’s farewell note, and it ends with Jamie writing the note. Her final refrain is "Goodbye, until tomorrow." His is simply, "Goodbye."

There may be some flaws. Butz’s Jamie, fairly seething with the actor’s expressive voice and marvelous body language, is forever captivating, even when he’s most unsympathetic. But Kathy’s part, for all of Kennedy’s big moments, is a little underwritten, and the segments dealing with her casting auditions as an actress lean perilously toward the cute.

But no matter. "The Last Five Years " is exciting, innovative and altogether inspiring.

You better go see it. I will not leave you alone until you do.