Members of the musical theatre lonely hearts club, despair no longer! Have I got a Valentine's Day gift for you. It's a show, yes, but not just any show: This one recalls the heady heyday of Golden Age Broadway musical comedy with as much joy, verve, and color as it toasts 2006 New York, the Urban Romance Capital of the World.
If you thought such a thing was as rare as true love, you're not alone. But the Village Theatre's new tenant, I Love You Because, is as feisty, friendly, and funny a musical comedy as New York has seen in ages. Yes, the still-running Altar Boyz has more concentrated laughs, and the short-lived Amour, which ran on Broadway in 2002, had an even bigger heart. But it's been far too long since the two qualities merged into a single show this winning.
Stop worrying, for the moment, about the current health of the musical theatre. The authors of I Love You Because, Ryan Cunningham (book and lyrics) and Joshua Salzman (music), provide fervent hope for the future of the earnest, irony-free romantic musical comedy that artificial laff-riots like Spamalot and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels try to pound into dust. The characters here do the unthinkable: They sing what they actually feel.
And they have plenty on their minds, not least because this is an (extremely loose) adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Greeting card poet Austin (Colin Hanlon) walks in on his girlfriend of five years having sex with another guy. He's thrown into a spiral of despair and denial, and lets his brother Jeff (David A. Austin) set up him up with Marcy (Farah Alvin), a free-spirited, seat-of-her-pants type. She's also on the rebound and is actively pursuing a Mr. Wrong to tide her over until she's ready to take the plunge again; uptight Republican Austin seems to fit the bill.
Of course they fall for each other, and not without their fair share of bruises: they drive each other predictably crazy, with everything from their coffee choices to their restaurant habits. While they're feeling their way through their uneasy courtship, Jeff and Marcy's friend Diane (Stephanie D'Abruzzo) take up together, secure in the knowledge that they're just friends (with benefits, thank you) and can and will call it quits before things get too serious.
Are things ever that simple? Not in musical comedy land. But even if Cunningham's book sometimes too closely follows decades-old precepts of how relationships play out onstage - including a genuinely suspenseful first-act curtain moment - so much of it is so new, so now, it's like you're experiencing those glittery, glorious clichés for the first time.
Cunningham's lyrics lead the charge, defining characters and situations in terms so original and specific that he recalls the agility, acuity, and resourcefulness of Frank Loesser. One song for actuary Diane brilliantly breaks down the break-up mechanic into mathematical mishegoss. Austin and Marcy's first meeting unfolds against the awkward strains of Austin's inability to stop talking about his ex. There's even a priceless Cabaret moment, when a climax in the Austin-Marcy pairing is jarringly juxtaposed with a maniacally grinning and dancing Jeff and Diane singing "We're Just Friends" about all the ways they're not.
The language, smoothly matched with Salzman's attractive, top-40-style tunes, is zippy, and generally precise (though a few clunker lyrics, one rhyming "important" with "shortened," do stick out). The choreography (by the increasingly invaluable Christopher Gattelli), direction (by Daniel Kutner), and musical direction (Jana Zielonka) burst with a similar kind of exuberant energy wed to solid theatrical smarts. The crayon-colored sets, by Beowulf Boritt and Jo Winiarski, and lights (Jeff Croiter) transform the theater into an all-encompassing indoor evocation of a bustling Manhattan thoroughfare.
It's populated by a fine cast. Hanlon boasts a secure pop tenor that soars through Austin's belty songs with ease, and nicely completes his portrait of a nervously likeable reformed loser. Austin effectively upends traditional notions of the dumb-jock brother by presenting the malapropism-spewing Jeff as someone as amiable and open-hearted as he is dimwitted. Jordan Leeds and Courtney Balan charm as two omnipresent New York choristers. D'Abruzzo, however, performs with an intensely mannered primness that renders her almost as puppetlike as the felt costars she previously paraded in Avenue Q.
But Alvin impresses most as the flighty Marcy, making her a giddily gushing embodiment of everything unexpectedly delightful about New York. With her intensely focused acting and her convicted singing, Alvin makes you intimately understand why Austin finds Marcy so fascinating and frustrating, and beautifully reconciles the flibbertigibbet personality that can sing the tentative "Just Not Now" so plaintively one moment and the comically confessional "Even Though" not long after.
That song works hand in hand with the title tune to explore the full range of implications of the myriad ways we love. Are we attracted to others in spite of their faults, or are the faults what make them attractive? It's the show's key question, and one the characters must learn to answer before it can end.
Love's seldom so easy for the rest of us. But committed or single, we can find some solace in at least one thing: If you've been looking for the perfect date musical, or just a show to restore your faith in musical comedy's ability to take itself, its laughs, and its feelings seriously, your search ends with I Love You Because.
I Love You Because