By Ian Rigg
Love is a song. It grips us, resolves to harmony through dissonance, crescendos…and then it ends before we’re ready. But like any legendary love, it lingers long after it’s done, echoes through the soul and proves we can feel deeper than we ever expected.
Now & Then (produced by the selfsame company in Pride Films & Plays’ Broadway space) is a wistful gem for a summer night. When two young men meet and fall in love at an open mic night, their decades-long love story sees their dreams deferred and relationship derailed, only to remember that their dream was one another all along – but eventually, every dream comes to an end.
Better yet, the story is semi-autobiographical: Dennis Manning, the songwriter and guitarist seen onstage as Daniel 3, compiles decades of experience, skill and pathos into tuneful melodies powered by nostalgic pain, all of which pack an emotional punch.
Writer and director Ronnie Larsen takes those songs and stitches together a book, then juggles and juxtaposes the epochs of the couple’s life, framed as a memory play. It all works well, resulting in a unique kind of musical. It also serves as a refreshing gay love story, as the drama derives not from voyeuristic trauma, but from far more quotidian tragedies. Now & Then doesn’t have to mine tired clichés and in turn lovingly normalizes two lives well lived. Daniel and Greg don’t have to fight against society to be in love: their biggest obstacle is the ever-shifting of when passion turns to tenderness, dreams become realities, and the end of one’s life comes staring you both down the barrel.
The ability to play with time itself proves more than a gimmick or hook: the actors are eventually play not alongside one another but with one another. The entire show is about a love reaching and teaching through time. It makes for some truly effective moments, particularly at the show’s compassionate conclusion.
Melquisedel Dominguez’s utilitarian but levelled set allows for these dynamic stage pictures, and for actors to appear and disappear as needed. Michael McShane’s lighting design echoes and evokes the bleeding diffusion of memory. Crossfades and colors shade the halcyon days of young love, reds and stark whites render the brink of divorce, and the end of one’s life is cast in golden twilight.
Bolder still is that the only accompaniment is three onstage guitars, played by Daniels 1-3. For that resonant, rustic thunder is what really anchors the musical: the story and songs are lovely, but it’s the performances that really make this play worth checking out.
We see love unfold in three eras, and each pair makes a dynamic duo. The energetic charisma, and sweetness of rising stars Will Fulginiti and Benjamin Walton instantly invest the audience in the couple’s legendary love, full of first-date flirtation, puppydog confessions, and stomachs filled with butterflies. And their voices are even better to behold.
Next we see the couple’s tumultuous middle age, where the new car smell has really worn off the relationship and something’s really wrong with the brakes. Alex Smith does an amiable job of making Greg, now a practical worrywart, worthy of love. Carl Herzog’s uniquely cultured voice continues to dazzle Chicago, bringing equal parts charisma and sympathy to a rockstar who has lost his way.
And lastly, in their autumn years and facing down death itself, stand the sensitive, silly and sorrowful Skip Sams, and resolute Dennis Manning himself, the musical’s anchor and quiet beating heart.
This is a tale of tenderness, and the six actors each embody two men alternatively separated across four decades with a lived-in familiarity and well-forged chemistry. And when they all sing together (under the heartfelt musical guidance of Manning), it’s all the more magical.
While a few songs could be abridged to make into a tighter one-act, the lived-in tenderness and earworm folk songs written over the course of decades leave a night of compelling entertainment. A new musical, just like a new relationship, can lose its way and stumble on occasion.
But when anchored by great songs and performances, the journey is a touching delight, and sure enough, the actors shed real tears onstage for the musical’s pitch perfect ending. The story that should finally pluck Manning from obscurity is a beautiful one: of two men who meet by chance, and navigate the turmoil of tomorrows that come with a love that always stayed young.
Because love is a song. And it never ends.
Pride Films & Plays and Now & Then Productions present “Now & Then” through August 11 at 4139 N. Broadway. More information and tickets are available here.