‘Now and Then,’ Paints A Queer Love Story

Now and Then is a musical gay love story that tells the tale of one relationship between two men, Greg and Daniel, over forty years. Three different pairs of actors play the two men at different points in their lives: Will Fulgintini and Benjamin Walton play the young Dan and Greg when they’re first meeting in college; Alex Smith and Carl Herzog play the couple in their thirties, as the relationship has grown stale and must be saved; and Skip Sams and Dennis Manning play the couple in their sixties, having reached a steady equilibrium in the relationship, which is challenged by Greg’s battle with cancer.

It’s a lovely premise, but it’s one that might have worked better in a shorter show. Over two hours, we are given to understand three things:

  1. Young Daniel and Greg are very happy; they are still in the honeymoon of their relationship.
  2. Middle Daniel and Greg are very miserable; they are in the rough patch of their relationship.
  3. Old Daniel and Greg are stable, but sad; they talk about both their happy and sad memories with ease, but Daniel is in denial about Greg’s cancer, and that frustrates Greg.

It’s a lovely and interesting triptych, but that’s what it feels like: a painting. Because the first two couples are so static, and the last couple is mostly at peace, there is nothing to drive the show forward. The audience isn’t permitted to see this couple grow, or change, or struggle, because the play jumps to particular moments in time instead of showing us how we got there. As a result, the show feels like watching three setups, with the climaxes taking place before or after what we see.

The music and lyrics, from Dennis Manning, are beautiful and entrancing, mostly pulled from the American folk genre, but given a more melodic twist. It is mostly played by the three Daniels as they each carry identical guitars through their lives, making the songs feel grounded and real. Unfortunately, the songs all sound pretty similar, which keeps the emotions static. The skill of the singers ranges from excellent to average, but the repetition of the quiet, soulful, and contemplative folk song structure doesn’t serve the storytelling.

The costumes, too, are unmoving  — all three Daniels wear blue jeans, a white t-shirt, and a white cowboy hat, while all three Gregs wear khaki pants and a folksy blue button-up. The reasoning for this is clear: we are seeing three sets of actors play the same two characters, so I understand wanting to allay that confusion. However, the premise is elegant enough that I think we the audience could have been trusted to figure that out on our own. And there could have been an interesting visual element here, to show changes in Daniel and Greg’s lives through an evolution in their costumes.

There are also some confusing inconsistencies in the plot itself. Greg and Daniel reference specific things about each other’s clothes, which means their costumes must be literal — does this mean both of these guys have worn the same outfit every single day for decades? Young Greg references Beyoncé, whose solo music career didn’t start until the 2000’s — does this mean that Old Greg and Daniel are living in the 2040’s? What’s that world like? Are the polar ice caps still there? Give me a musical about that!

I jest, of course, but I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t where my mind went while watching this show. Writers Dennis Manning and Ronnie Larsen were clearly going for a quiet, heartfelt piece about the quiet moments in a relationship, good and bad. Intimacy was the overall vibe — but any story, no matter how intimate, needs momentum. I’m not saying it needed to be about anything other than the love between them, but we did need some kind of way inside. A palpable progression in the relationship, so that we can see and internalize the fact that a decades-spanning romance such as Greg and Daniel’s is a living, breathing thing, which needs care and sustenance and innovation to fuel it. Characters talked about this idea, but it was mostly telling and not showing.

I hunger for more musicals like this — please, give me more queer love stories from queer artists. Keep reclaiming traditionally straight music genres, keep telling honest, intimate stories that reflect the queer experience, we need it. And so while Now and Then fell flat for me, I can’t help but be happy that it exists. The artists who worked on it clearly loved doing so, and I hope they grow and change and learn from it, and keep striving to make more queer art. I think, in this never-ending battle for positive representation, there is often a push for uniform quality as a measure of worthiness — the straights will only take us seriously if we come out of the gate swinging! But it’s important to be allowed to fail sometimes. Now and Then reaches high, but doesn’t always grasp what it’s looking for, and there’s something beautiful in that.

Now and Then runs at the Pride Arts Center until August 11th.

Carl Herzog – Daniel 2
Alex Smith – Greg 2
Will Fulginiti – Daniel 1
Benjamin Walton – Greg 1
Dennis Manning – Daniel 3
Skip Sams – Greg 3

Director – Ronnie Larsen
Music and Lyrics – Dennis Manning
Story and Book – Ronnie Larsen
Music Direction – Dennis Manning
Photos – John Olson

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