Theater Review: THE LAST FIVE YEARS (Cygnet Theatre Company in San Diego)

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by Milo Shapiro on November 4, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


The Last Five Years shares the joys, trials, and failures of two people, Jamie (Michael Louis Cusimano) and Cathy (Racquel Williams), in their deeply-loving relationship. At first, it might seem like they are in two different relationships, almost schizophrenically so, because the songs they sing (and virtually the entire show is in song) seem so opposite. But this is more than just because of how different the two characters are. It’s because we’re watching his songs in a logicial, chronological order, whereas we are watching hers from the end of the relationship backward.

No need to call out “Spoiler Alert” in saying that their relationship fails, since it’s literally the first thing we learn from Cathy before her tale starts going backward. Our story commences with Williams’ lovely rendition of “I’m Still Hurting” as she reads the goodbye letter that we’ll see him eventually write at the end of the play. Understanding her sequence from the onset will likely help you appreciate this show, instead of figuring out what’s happening at some point down the way like most beginners must.

With due respect to the two actors, whom I’ll get to, the biggest star here is playwright/composer Jason Robert Brown’s lyrics and music. The gorgeous score is handled with love by a superb small orchestra, led by musical director Patrick Marion. In many cases, the cello chords convey as much as Cathy does. That said, Williams could pull off much of this show a capella if she ever needed to, with so much soul to her voice. Happily, she never needs to.

As Cathy struggles to get an acting/singing career off the ground, we see Williams try an audition piece many different ways. In the end, when she sings the song as herself the pathos is suddenly palpable (perhaps implying that Cathy was never as good as she thought). While struggling with all this, she is both happy and distraught to see Jamie’s success soar with so little effort, as his first novel is grabbed up by Random House and he becomes a celebrity author. A bit like A Star Is Born, perhaps, but with very different feeling.

While Ms. Williams is fresh out of New York for this production, Mr. Cusimano arrived from there three years ago and has barely left a San Diego stage since, most recently captivating in Girlfriend at Diversionary. An able singer, if not quite as rich in tone as Williams, we do feel for his Jamie, both rooting for him and resenting him. Still, it would be hard not to empathize more with poor Cathy who tries so hard – both in career and with Jamie – but somehow always misses the mark.

The one factor that the show lacks a bit is plot intrigue. As a theatre device, playing the two stories in opposite time directions is certainly intriguing, but knowing the outcome of everything before it happens takes away from wanting to see what happens next. As a result, we’re more appreciating the music, lyrics, and performances than the actual story, which is only mildly interesting. But such music! Influences of Sondheim without so many discordant moments. Hours later, the final song, “Goodbye Until Tomorrow,” echoed in my head warmly.

The novelty of Brown’s endeavor alone makes The Last Five Years worthy viewing. For some, the lack of plot intrigue will leave you shrugging at the end of this show; for others, the beauty of the music and its lovely delivery will leave you thinking, “Plot? Who cares? This was glorious.”

photos by Karli Cadel Photography

The Last Five Years
Cygnet Theatre Company
Old Town Theater, 4040 Twiggs St.
Wed & Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7
ends on November 17, 2019
for tickets, call 619-337-1525 or visit Cygnet

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