Michael Louis Cusimano and Racquel Williams in "The Last Five Years." Photo by Ken Jacques
Love is happy, love is sad. Love is sad, love is happy. This is the rotating sensibility of Jason Robert Brown’s “The Last Five Years,” a musical chronicle of a relationship (and subsequent marriage) based on his own that soured. In the two-handed piece, young Jamie and Cathy take their turns singing about themselves, about each other and about where as a couple they are headed. The irony is that though they’re on stage together much of the time, they exist in completely different points in the five-year relationship: Jamie goes from the first blush of love to the anguish of the breakup; Cathy is in despair mode when the show begins and is wearing a too-good-to-be-true smile at the finale.
This parallel-time device is enough to distinguish “The Last Five Years,” which debuted in 2001 and is now onstage at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town, from a run-of-the-mill romantic musical. Brown’s script (he wrote the book, music and lyrics) amplifies the fact that lovers, or spouses, are rarely on exactly the same page.
Cygnet’s Jamie and Cathy are the mutually adorable Michael Louis Cusimano and Racquel Williams. They look,sound and move so well together that their performances are almost balletic. Each is completely comfortable with the score’s overly sincere ballads of longing or loss, though their comic moments are best, as when budding actress Cathy goes through the humbling rituals of auditions and writer Jamie’s publishing ship comes in. To some degree, Cusimano and Williams are more likable than their career-obsessed characters.
That director Rob Lutfy has the pair nearly constantly in motion keeps the proceedings from feeling static, which was an issue when this same musical was presented a few years ago at the now-shuttered ion theatre in Hillcrest. Justin Humphres’ set design and the subtle lighting conceived by Anne E. McMills help foster a sense of intimacy.
Most notably of all is the exquisite musical accompaniment behind stage directed and orchestrated by Patrick Marion. Making up the supple ensemble are cellists Erika Boras Tesi and Diana Elledge, violinist Sean Laperruque, bassist Mackenzie Leighton, guitarist Jim Mooney and Marion himself on piano.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 10/30/19.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.