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By Elizabeth Youngman Westphal
Special to Village News 

Music makes 'The Last Five Years' worth seeing


Last updated 11/1/2019 at 12:52am

Karli Cadel photo

Jamie Wellerstein, played by Michael Lewis Cusimano, writes his first novel while Catherine Hiatt, played by Racquel Williams, reimagines her life with her new husband in "The Last Five Years" now playing at The Cygnet Theater in Old Town San Diego.

From the first note to the last, it is the orchestrations filling the air in "The Last Five Years" which make it exceptional. Little wonder the musicians get a worthy curtain call.

Cellists Erika Boras Tesi and Diana Elledge play alongside Sean Laperruque on violin; Mackenzie Leighton is on bass; Patrick Marion is their musical director and plays keyboards with Jim Mooney strumming the guitar.

The group drives the performance with its haunting, yet cathartic, instrumentals.

It becomes clear why Jason Robert Brown is considered to be one of the "leading member(s) of a new generation of composers" according to The New York Times.

As a "lyricist he is considered one of Broadway's smartest and most sophisticated songwriters and in the same league as Stephen Sondheim" according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

In this modern, two-person musical comedy and drama, Jamie Wellerstein's lyrics are comedically styled, acerbic and well developed. Some even suggest this storyline is a bit auto-biographical because Brown gives Jamie, played by Michael Louis Cusimano, all of the best words.

The other character Catherine Hiatt is played by Racquel Williams. Catherine becomes Jamie's wife for a while. Her lines are one dimensional, and her lyrics are flat, repetitive and too often boring. She does get a bit of whimsy with "A Summer in Ohio," touting her experiences playing summer stock.

This performance is more of an operetta than a play, interestingly enough, since most of the dialogue is sung outward and not to the other character. Brown's script, lyrics and music appear very personal from Jamie's perspective.

In 90 minutes, the performance goes from a guy giving it to his mother and her temple circle of likely matrimonial choices, because the woman he now loves is a "Shiksa Goddess," to the same guy five years later, dumping same wife in "Goodbye Until Tomorrow" while Catherine answers back with "I Could Never Rescue You."

Filled with moving boxes, the simple set clearly describes what is happening and was designed by Justin Humphries. Anne McMills coordinated the lighting design and Matt Lescault-Woods served as the sound designer.

However, in her Cygnet debut as costume designer, Emily Wilson fell short. Were these wrinkly, weary-worn items pulled from the Goodwill bin or the actor's laundry hamper? Fine perhaps for the first scene, yet they need to change up as their careers improve. Afterall, Jamie becomes a successful author and Catherine moves up in her acting career too. Iron them up at a minimum.

Meanwhile, the subtle, often comedic moves choreographed by Michael Mizerany add pizzazz and accent the humorous lyrics.

Rob Lutfy is the associate director at The Cygnet Theater and directed this show. He said he liked the "smallness of the story," about moving on while holding on.

Still, it is the music in "The Last Five Years" which accentuates the ache and sorrow of the story.

"The Last Five Years" will play at The Cygnet Theater, 4040 Twiggs St. in Old Town San Diego, until Nov. 17. Free parking can be hard to find, so plan on arriving early to seek it out or use the paid parking lots.

It is "The end. The beginning. (With) The music in between." The play is a worthy effort for an afternoon in Old Town. "The Last Five Years" is rated 9 out of 10.

Elizabeth Youngman-Westphal can be reached by email at


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