The Chicago cast of ‘Now & Then.’ (Photo: Ronnie Larson)
by Lauren Emily Whalen
Jason Robert Brown’s musical The Last Five Years rocked the musical theater scene when it first premiered at Chicago’s Northlight Theatre in 2001 and opened Off-Broadway a year later. The concept was simple: two people meet, fall in love, get married and break up. Told through alternating perspectives and timelines, The Last Five Years was a rare musical that asked the question: how well do you really know your partner? Now & Then has a similar concept only the couple stays together for 43 years. And they’re gay.
While The Last Five Years utilized two actors, Now & Then has six actors portray the couple, three who play acoustic guitar onstage. But more actors don’t mean more clarity, and though Dennis Manning’s country and western-inspired score is compelling, writer-director Ronnie Larsen’s book needs serious work before the show travels to London’s West End this fall.
Daniel and Greg meet at age 20, when the former (Will Fulginiti), an aspiring singer and guitarist, closes out an open mic hosted by the latter (Benjamin Walton), a wannabe stand-up comedian. The two marry almost immediately but hit a rough patch in their thirties when Daniel (Carl Herzog) turns to drinking out of frustration with his stalled music career, and Greg (Alex Smith), who has given up his comedy dreams for a steady paycheck, wonders if the relationship will last. Thirty years later, Greg (Skip Sams) is dealing with terminal cancer and Daniel (Manning) doesn’t want to face their last Christmas together.
Compelling, right? Any couples with that longevity have inevitably experienced their share of ups and downs, and gay couples even more so, given a society that isn’t always accepting. A gay couple with a relationship that spans four-plus decades – acted and sung by six actors to boot – has the potential for an interesting musical that can be a universal musing on the struggles of long-term love, coupled with the unique challenges of living out and proud.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen with Larsen’s script, which vaguely vacillates between time and place. The twenty-something couple refers to both ATMs and a childhood quest for an Easy-Bake oven. We don’t see their wedding ceremony, nor do we get any sense of the potential incidents, illegalities, or struggles they might have faced as a same-sex couple. Even the substance-abusing spouse plotline lacks specificity. With the exception of composer and lyricist Manning, who plays the oldest version of Daniel, the actors seem lost when they aren’t singing.
Manning’s haunting score, bursting with frustration and longing with an occasional respite of peace, is Now & Then’s clear highlight. The opening song, “I’m a Solitary Man” (which also closes the show), delivers Daniel’s rumination on loneliness, first as a wide-eyed ex-seminarian and later as a grieving older man newly determined to celebrate the life he has left. Manning’s country-inspired tunes that are as catchy as they are melancholy – but the script can never keep up, leading to the feeling of a concept album that’s still not fully realized for the stage.
Now & Then
Now & Then Productions
The Broadway at Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway
Through August 11, 2019
Lauren Emily Whalen is a 2018 alumna of the National Critics Institute and author of the young adult novel SATELLITE. Follow her on Twitter at @laurenemilywri.