On June 1st, Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy inaugurated its ambitious six-show season with a deeply moving production of The Last Five Years by Tony Award® winner Jason Robert Brown (Parade). Brown’s compelling and somewhat autobiographical two-character musical, which had its world premiere at the Northlight Theatre in Skokie, Ill. in May 2001 and made its Off Broadway debut at the Minetta Lane Theatre in March 2002, chronicles the rocky relationship between an increasingly successful young novelist and the increasingly unsuccessful young actress whom he married.

Last night, Broadway stars Nicholas Rodriquez and Kate Shindle more than lived up to their billing. They earned a standing ovation for their powerful performances as Jamie Wellerstein and Catherine Hiatt, attractive young marrieds whose careers are headed in opposite directions. To emphasize that fact, Brown has put Jamie and Cathy on separate tracks that only intersect once, briefly, at the moment of their marriage. Otherwise, they mostly occupy different portions of the same stage.

Jamie’s dramatic arc starts at the beginning of their romantic relationship and moves toward their eventual breakup. Cathy’s dramatic arc begins at that awful, unimaginably painful moment that the marriage falls apart; and it moves backwards in time to their first contact.

Composer/lyricist/librettist Jason Robert Brown’s gimmick pays mixed dividends. It inspires some gut-wrenching songs, which lay bare the troubled souls of both characters; but it might also prove confusing to theatergoers who are a little slow on the uptake. There are just not enough landmarks in this musical’s changing emotional landscape to keep the audience oriented.

Nicholas Rodriquez and Kate Shindle, under the inspired direction of Peace College associate professor of theater Dr. Kenny C. Gannon, give passionate performances as two unforgettable characters shooting stars in the arts world. As his star soars higher and higher, her star flames out and crashes to earth. Instead of comforting her in her moments of distress and self-doubt, he seeks solace in the arms of other women. Likewise, instead of taking pride in his accomplishments, she gets jealous and moody and makes their life together more and more difficult.

Rodriquez and Shindle not only have big Broadway voices, but they also have the acting chops to mine every nugget of humor and pathos in these two exceptionally rich characters. It is hard to imagine two more moving characterizations of these charming but complex characters who love each other passionately but, by the end of their marriage, don’t like each other very much.

Director Kenny Gannon stages the show with grace and wit, sustaining dramatic tension throughout. (The Last Five Years runs a little over 80 minutes and is performed without intermission.) Scenic designer Sonya Drum employs a clever clock motif most effectively as a backdrop to the action; and technical director and lighting designer Curtis Jones keeps the spotlight where it should be almost all of the time.

Dynamic instrumental accompaniment by musical director/pianist Julie Flinchum, cellists Kristina Pugh and Christopher Homick, violinist Randolyn Emerson, guitarist Baron Tymas, and bassist John Simonetti is another of this production’s many highlights; but sound designer Brian Hunt struggled at times on opening night to make the vocals captured by the body mics completely intelligible. With some of the lyrics unintelligible, it was harder to understand what the characters were feeling.

These sporadic sound problems, which had largely disappeared long before the final curtain, are a minor caveat. The current Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy presentation of The Last Five Years has so much to recommend it savvy staging, heart-tugging performances, a sizzling sextet in the orchestra pit, a stylish set, etc. that what may well be a final opening-night technical adjustment should not discourage Triangle audiences from attending this outstanding production of a new musical by one of Broadway’s up-and-coming songsmiths.

Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy presents The Last Five Years Thursday-Saturday, June 2-4, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, June 5, at 2 p.m.; Wednesday-Saturday, June -11, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, June 12, at 2 p.m. in The Kennedy Theater in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $35 per ticket or $50 for two tickets (except June 1st), with special student and group rates available. BTI Box Office: 919/831-6060. Group Rates: 919/828-3726. Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy: http://www.hotsummernightsatthekennedy.org/shows.html [inactive 1/06]. Jason Robert Brown Online (fan site): http://www.geocities.com/jason_robert_brown/ [inactive 11/09].

PREVIEW: Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy: Their Romance on the Rocks, a Married Couple Looks Back on The Last Five Years

by Robert W. McDowell

Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy will debut June 1st in The Kennedy Theater in Raleigh, NC’s BTI Center for the Performing Arts with a stellar production of The Last Five Years, a 2002 two-character Off-Broadway musical by prize-winning composer, lyricist, and librettist Jason Robert Brown, who won the 1999 Tony Award® for Best Original Musical Score for his songs for Parade, which features a script by Alfred Uhry chronicling the arrest, trial, and lynching of Leo Frank.

The Raleigh production of The Last Five Years will star Broadway veteran and Miss America 1998 Kate Shindle and up-and-comer Nicholas Rodriguez as Kathleen and Jamie, a married couple whose romance is definitely on the rocks. Shindle, who played the poor doomed London prostitute Lucy in the Broadway production of Jekyll & Hyde, repeated that role in the critically acclaimed 2004 North Carolina Theatre presentation of that award-winning musical.

Nicholas Rodriguez is also familiar to Triangle audiences. He played rebellious teenager Ren MacCormack the Kevin Bacon role in NCT’s 2002 production of Footloose the Musical, which is based on the 1984 film that rocketed Bacon to movie stardom.

Peace College associate professor of theater Dr. Kenny C. Gannon, who will stage The Last Five Years for Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy, says, “I learned about Jason Robert Brown when he and Lauren Kennedy did some concerts here a couple of years ago. I was amazed and delighted by his music.”

The Last Five Years had its world premiere May 16-June 24, 2001 in Skokie, Illinois at the Northlight Theatre. The show, which was directed by Daisy Prince, starred Norbert Leo Butz and Raleigh’s own Lauren Kennedy.

The Northlight Theatre described the musical as follows:

The Last Five Years is an intimate, two-person musical that tells the compelling story of Jamie, a nice Jewish boy, and Kathleen, a good Irish Catholic girl, who fall in love, get married, and fall apart over the course of five years. Jamie is an emerging novelist enjoying his first taste of success, while Kathleen is a struggling actress having trouble hitting it big, making their musical duet by turns wildly funny and crushingly sad.

“Brown has employed an unusual temporal shift in the piece, with Kathleen starting at the end of the marriage and working her way back, while Jamie begins on their first date and works his way forward. Only once do Jamie and Kathleen sing together, at their wedding in the middle of the play. This underscores cause and effect, as two people whose powerful love for one another cannot overcome their cultural differences and divergent dreams.

“Musically, Brown’s score navigates the minefields of love and marriage through soulful, soaring music and lyrics that evoke contemporary pop songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon, combined with the theatrical styles of Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein. Traditional Jewish and Irish musical themes are also played against the sounds, pace and complexity of contemporary life in New York City.”

In reviewing the show’s world-premiere, Richard Christiansen of The Chicago Tribune loved the show and thought his readers would, too: “You better go see it. I will not leave you alone until you do…. Exhilaration, so intense that it brings tears of joy, is at hand in the premiere of The Last Five Years at Northlight Theatre…. Bursting with newfound talent, [it] is a triumph for everyone involved.”

In the Chicago Sun-Times, Hedy Weiss claimed, “It only takes two songs … to make it clear that [this] is a very special piece of work. It’s instantly clear, as well, that this poignant, richly dramatic and piercingly honest show is destined to be a hit…. Highly Recommended[!].”

The Last Five Years made its Off-Broadway debut, also directed by Daisy Prince and starring Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie René Scott, March 3-May 5, 2002, at the Minetta Lane Theatre in New York City.

In reviewing that production, Ben Brantley of The New York Times said the show “Pulses with dangerous, irresistible giddiness… Mr. Brown is a leading member of a new generation of composers who embody high hopes for the American musical… [He] confirms his sparkling facility as a composer, fluidly mixing diverse styles. They range from waltzes to rhythm and blues, from Sondheimesque urbanity to a clever Chorus Line-like audition piece for [Kathleen].”

In the New York Post, Linda Winer called The Last Five Years, “Compulsively enjoyable .… The two characters ‘make beautiful music together’ .… The show moves smartly along on the specificity of truth …. [The show contains u]npredictably heartfelt insights, energized by a seductive, rhythmic drive …. Here is a real modern falling-in-and-out-of-love musical… [Jamie and Kathleen’s] last five years make us feel much better about the future of musical theater.”

Michael Kuchwara of the Associated Press characterized the show as “A bracing musical theater piece … [b]rimming with persistent melodies, thoughtful lyrics and a heartfelt, compelling story … [and a]rticulated with surprising tenderness.… Brown’s fine score is diverse… [with c]atchy tunes. There are several here that stick in the memory.… [The show is a] potent reminder of what musicals can be like when they make up their minds to really sing.”

The subsequent Canadian Stage Company production of this show, performed April 19-May 29, 2004 in Toronto, was nominated for four Dora Mavor Moore Awards. In reviewing that production for the Toronto Star, Richard Ouzounian wrote: “Jason Robert Brown based this stimulating show on the break-up of his marriage to an actress [Theresa O’Neill] whose career was stuck in low gear while he won the 1999 Tony Award for his Broadway musical, Parade. It was only a matter of time before the gap in the careers caused a gap in their lives.”

Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy director Kenny Gannon claims, “[The Last Five Years] is unusual, unique, innovative. [It] plays with time[, with] each character going in different directions in time. It’s poignant, astounding, intimate, [and] powerful. [Its] music, lyrics and drama [are] finely joined.”

Gannon says the biggest challenge in staging The Last Five Years is “handling the notion of time.” He adds, “We’ve been very careful to mark each passing moment as the characters move in different directions. It’s a great exercise in dramatic irony.”

He adds that working with Kate Shindle and Nicholas Rodriguez has been a delight. Gannon claims, “Kate and Nicholas are fantastic.”

Triangle audiences will get a chance to see these two “Broadway stars up close and personal,” Gannon says, “in the intimacy of the Kennedy [Theater].”

He also claims, “[Pianist] Julie Flinchum is wonderful. The orchestrations for this piece are luscious.”

Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy presents The Last Five Years Wednesday-Saturday, June 1-4 and 8-11, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, June 5 and 12, at 2 p.m. in The Kennedy Theater in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $35 per ticket or $50 for two tickets (except June 1st), with special student and group rates available. BTI Box Office: 919/831-6060. Group Rates: 919/828-3726. Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy: http://www.hotsummernightsatthekennedy.org/ [inactive 1/06]. Jason Robert Brown Online (fan site): http://www.geocities.com/jason_robert_brown/ [inactive 11/05].