Cygnet Theatre’s ‘The Last Five Years’ is a beautiful show about breaking up

Racquel Williams in Cygnet Theatre's "The Last Five Years."
(Karli Cadel Photography)

Old Town theater revives intimate Jason Robert Brown musical, which tells the story of a romance through intertwined timelines


It’s easy to talk about chemistry when it comes to a play that portrays an intense romance — except maybe when that play is actually a kind of physics experiment.

In “The Last Five Years” — Jason Robert Brown’s lyrical chamber musical, which just opened in a beautifully bittersweet revival at Cygnet Theatre — the two lovers at the center of the saga connect only once, around the show’s halfway point.

That’s because their stories unfold in two separate timelines — and the show actually begins at the end, as a heartbroken stage actress named Cathy (Racquel Williams) laments the death of her marriage.

While Cathy’s story progresses backward toward blissful beginnings, that of her mate, the rising novelist Jamie (Michael Louis Cusimano), starts with sweet courtship and hurtles toward eventual divorce.

It’s a pretty lofty conceit, and in most productions it’s kept as streamlined as possible by putting only one actor onstage at a time. (All but two of the songs are solo numbers.)

But director and Cygnet associate artistic chief Rob Lutfy’s staging injects an extra sense of tension and poignancy by having both Williams and Cusimano take the stage for nearly the entire show. When one performs a number, the other enacts a kind of wordless counterpoint, their actions connected by mementos that summon shared memories.

So when Williams sings the brooding opener, “Still Hurting,” with a framed set of dried flowers in her hand, Jamie is seen in the shadows, smiling and as he holds the original, full bouquet.

That setup, boosted by Michael Mizerany’s movement work, helps foster a crucial chemistry between the two. And it’s boosted by the fact both Williams and Cusimano are powerhouse performers who lend the show a vibrant stylistic variety.

Michael Louis Cusimano and Racquel Williams in Cygnet Theatre's "The Last Five Years."
(Karli Cadel Photography)

The gifted Williams, a New Yorker whose Cygnet turn is her San Diego stage debut, makes a splash from the start on “Still Hurting,” with deft vocal phrasing and a quality of authentic expressiveness.

As the show progresses, she proves a versatile artist who can deliver soaring vocals on “Summer in Ohio” and bring genuine comic zip to “Audition Sequences,” a number about actorly frustrations.

And Cusimano, who’s been having a huge couple of years here with memorable turns at Lamb’s Players, Diversionary and other theaters, shows fresh depths to his talents — nailing both the humor and the tough vocal test of the offbeat charmer “Shiksa Goddess,” which leaps from low in the vocal range all the way to falsetto.

The two have a stirring duet at midshow with “The Next 10 Minutes,” as a rowboat descends from on high and Jamie and Cathy paddle through Central Park, harmonizing to the sound of undulating violins. (Anne E. McMills’ lighting skillfully sets and shifts the mood here and elsewhere.)

Music director/orchestrator and pianist Patrick Marion and his band mates — Erika Boras Tesi and Diana Elledge on cello, Sean LaPerruque on violin, Mackenzie Leighton on bass and Jim Mooney on guitar — also prove absolutely masterful. They make Brown’s often complex, rhythmically quirky score, with its mix of everything from pop to klezmer to Cuban jazz, really sing.

And Justin Humphres’ set — composed mostly of a jumble of moving boxes, with papers exploding into the air from one of them — creates an effective sense of lives in transition and emotions unleashed. Emily Wilson’s costumes also become their own storytelling element, and Matt Lescault-Wood’s sound design is crisp and well balanced.

Brown was inspired to write “The Last Five Years” partly by the demise of his own marriage, and he did not take pains to make the unfaithful, self-involved Jamie particularly likable. But then this is not meant to be a feel-good romance; instead, it’s a meditation on the complexities of attraction and commitment, and the way devotion and doubt can coexist even in the best relationships.

And how, in the end, there can be different meanings even to the word “goodbye.”

‘The Last Five Years’

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Nov. 17.

Where: Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St., Old Town.

Tickets: $35-$65 (discounts available)

Phone: (619) 337-1525