The Chicago Sun-Times
Hedy Weiss

It takes only two songs–the very first two in the show, in fact–to make it clear that Jason Robert Brown’s new 80-minute musical,

"The Last Five Years," is a very special piece of work.

It’s instantly clear, as well, that this poignant, richly dramatic and piercingly honest two-character show is destined to be a hit–and not only at Northlight Theatre, where it received its crystalline world premiere Wednesday night.

This is a piece that will challenge every pair of young musical theater performers willing to wear their broken hearts and bruised egos on their sleeves, if they also are able to meet the formidable vocal demands of Brown’s lushly melodic music and his strikingly colloquial yet glittering lyrics.

But about those two opening songs, and the people who sing them.

She, Kathleen (Lauren Kennedy), the tall, slim, leggy Irish girl, is first glimpsed standing in front of boxes packed with the detritus of a brief marriage. Still awash in the pain and hurt of failed love, she sings of her anger and loss.

He, Jamie (Norbert Leo Butz), is first caught preening, as if he were already preparing for his next girlfriend. Yet as it turns out, we are catching him at the very moment when he fell head over heels for Kathleen, five years earlier. There he is, an intensely verbal, self-deprecating and at the same time narcissistic Jewish boy in classic Philip Roth mode, begging to be struck with "the ancient curse of shiksa queens."

Like a youthful, latter-day Roth, Jamie is a novelist. And at the age of 23 he is quite full of himself, having just landed an agent and a book deal at a major New York publishing house, as well as the girl of his dreams. (Any resemblance to the gifted Brown is not entirely coincidental; he nabbed a Tony Award for the musical "Parade" before he turned 30.)

Like 95 percent of the young aspiring actresses in New York, Kathleen is beset by rejection–repeatedly making a hash of her singing auditions and stuck in summer-stock productions in Ohio. Her confidence level is at zero.

Though one of them is totally self-involved and the other is self-deflated, they love each other madly and marry. But as the ingeniously employed revolve in the stage floor suggests, they start to spin in opposite directions.

The meticulously woven, time-warped structure of Brown’s cyclical show–love in its first thrilling bloom counterpointed with love in aching retrospect–is beautifully conveyed in those initial songs. And under the impeccable direction of Daisy Prince (whose father, veteran Broadway director Hal Prince, was among the opening night crowd), every visual element of the production reinforces it.

Designer Beowulf Boritt has devised a powerfully poetic set–the upended room of a wedding party, with chairs and wedding flowers at right angles to the stage floor, and the shattered foundations of the marriage lying in a pile. Think of it as a tiered, toppled wedding cake, too, or as a clock ticking off the moments in opposing directions.

The performers, backed by musical director Tom Murray and Brown on piano as part of a six-piece backstage orchestra, are splendid. Butz (the emcee here in the national tour of "Cabaret") captures the energy, drive and urban sharpness as well as the charm and selfish childishness of Jamie. And Brown has given him a great gift in a brilliant song that unspools as a parable about a shtetl tailor–a gift that he translates into sublime theatrical magic.

Kennedy embodies the endearing mix of all-American beauty and gawkiness that clearly captivates Jamie, and turns Kathleen’s wedding vows scene (staged on a Central Park rowboat) into a deeply moving expression of the character’s insecurity and innocence.

All these scenes may sound familiar. But Brown’s lyrics–alternately cutting and boldly romantic–sweep the stage like a summer storm. There is little protective irony here; only the sharp pain of young but damaged hearts.