It’s far from the first time that the Kennedy family name has been associated with encouraging developments in the performing arts. Years after giving the North Carolina Theatre–and then Broadway–their talented daughter Lauren, K.D. and Sara Lynn Kennedy put their support behind the black box theater in downtown Raleigh’s BTI Center. This was the summer they decided to fill it, with an audacious new theater festival called “Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy.” Out of nowhere it came (except the imagination and ambition of its founders, that is): six productions, sixty performances between June 1 and August 28, with a mixture of local and union talent, in works ranging from an edgy new musical to a Tennessee Williams classic.

It would have been hard to pick a lovelier way to go broke in the performing arts–that is, if the public didn’t support it or the work didn’t merit that support. Our first report from the field: They do and it does. For after the swells supped on fruit, cheese and fine wine (a bit too much in some cases, judging by the juiced-up yowls of isolated audience members Friday night), we all sat down to satisfying theatrical meal: The Last Five Years, a musical by Jason Robert Brown.

Though none of the Kennedy clan appears on stage, the family touch is far from absent from this opening bid: Lauren Kennedy starred in its world premiere in Chicago in 2001, opposite Norbert Leo Butz (who took the Tony last Sunday night for Best Actor in a Musical, in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels).

However it got here, I’m glad it did. Though strictly speaking it’s a relatively lean offering–a two-person “chamber musical”–there’s considerable wit and sophistication at work in Brown’s score and libretto, and an overall freshness which places it at the forefront of the newer pieces the region has seen this year.

How edgy is Brown’s musical about a five-year relationship told from different, moving vantage points in time? Edgy enough that the composer evidently had to ditch one song in toto and change the wording in others between Chicago and it’s New York opening, after his ex-wife threatened to sue over plot and lyric points that referred just a bit too closely to their former marriage.

The Last Five Years has both partners relate their differing perceptions about the same relationship over the titled period of time. But his quantum-physics plot device has Catherine, a struggling actor, experience the relationship in reverse chronological order, while husband Jamie, a suddenly successful writer, sings the stations of their courtship and marriage as they occur. At the show’s beginning Catherine’s “Still Hurting” concludes the relationship, just as Jamie’s amusing “Shiksa Goddess” details his first fascination.

With these two end points defined, The Last Five Years subsequently becomes something of a puzzle piece under Kenny Gannon’s direction, as the audience attempts to figure out what is going to cause/has already caused this relationship to fail. Though cynics hold that one can always see the end in a relationship’s beginnings, this time out the challenge points remain reasonably opaque until late in the work.

We hop, skip and jump from furthest points in time to the one telling scene in which both characters occupy the same moment. Disastrous auditions and other theatrical in-jokes are memorably sent up in Catherine’s “A Summer in Ohio” and “When You Come Home to Me.” Other, sharper home truths are revealed, if not eviscerated, in “Climbing Uphill” and “A Part of That.”

But particularly given Five Years’ troubled, autobiographical provenance, the final balance of character flaws here remains suspect to some degree. Whatever Jamie’s pecadillos, Brown’s time transposition unsubtly renders Catherine a woman who is quite literally regressing, living ever further in the past. Though Jamie’s final song concludes “I Could Never Rescue You,” we don’t see Catherine before as a woman who is particularly in need of rescue. Brown’s episodic stepping stones, placed this far apart, don’t truly connect in places or justify the final verdict.

Nicholas Rodriguez and Kate Shindle’s work in the twin leads is gratifying, for the most part, although Rodriguez’ arena-sized gestures and belting at points needs to be pulled in so as not to punch a wall out of the back of Kennedy Theater. Though Randolyn Emerson’s violin was rawer than useful on occasion on Friday night, Julie Flinchum’s six-person orchestra tackled a challenging score with nuance and considerable poise.

Designer Sonya Drum ignores the age-old advice against putting a working clock anywhere on stage by incorporating no less than four different timepieces in her tasteful, telling backdrop. All of them are set to different hours. At least two of them run backwards while the play continues.

So what time is it ever in a relationship? One partner’s reckoning? The other’s? A separate time they constitute together, or something altogether different? As usual, Drum’s visual allegory provides appropriate counterpoint to the activity on stage.

The overall result? An intriguing and fundamentally successful bid to redefine, on small scale, the level of professionalism in regionally-based theater, and a good close look at what the next level in performance looks like in terms of script selection, design and above all, execution. Those interested in the present (and possible future) of musical theater really ought to see The Last Five Years before it closes Sunday afternoon.

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