Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Imperfect Love

My review of I Love You Because at Redwood Curtain runs in this week's NC Journal with changes that I didn't see in time to respond to, and still don't agree with.  In particular, I didn't write the subhead, which lifts a line I wrote about the music and applies it to the show as a whole.  The other changes mostly shifted shades of meaning to other shades, or were less than precise.

So I'm posting the review here as I wrote it, without any of these changes(including the ones that improved it.)  I had a particularly hard time finding the words for one overall impression.  Though I think I finally came up with a decent way to say it, I'll take this opportunity to make it a critique note.  At the performance I attended (Friday preview) I never got the feeling that the appropriate characters were attracted to each other, sexually and otherwise (though of course they said so and sang so.)  The closest moment was the very last, in Sarah Mullen's eyes.  This is something that might have been peculiar to the energy of that performance (the night before opening night), or if it is true, there is plenty of time in the run to figure out if it is true (or just my delusion) and see if anything can be done about it.  Because it is something that on stage as in life can make a lot credible that otherwise isn't.

Imperfect Love
Twentysomething Musical at Redwood Curtain

Humboldt Light Opera Company typically mounts a big production in late summer and a smaller musical in spring, often staged at CR with accompaniment by a single pianist. Meanwhile Redwood Curtain, which tends to specialize in contemporary “relationship” comedies, occasionally does a small musical with that theme. A few years ago the two groups actually did the same show within months of each other (The Last Five Years.)

 So a partnership of sorts seemed natural, resulting in I Love You Because, the small musical about “relationships” now on stage at Redwood Curtain in Eureka. Directed by HLOC’s Carol Ryder and featuring a HLOC cast, it benefits from the intimacy of the small house, where it is possible to be practically sitting in the pianist’s lap.

 As to be expected from a HLOC production, the singing was strong and the direction was fluid and inventive. The comic acting met the high standards of both HLOC and Redwood Curtain. And then there’s the play.

 I Love You Because is a contemporary musical comedy about twentysomethings in New York City. Austin, a conservative greeting card writer (played by Craig Waldvogal) and Marcy, a free-spirited photographer (Sarah Mullen) are each facing the end of a “relationship.” Marcy’s mathematically inclined friend Diana (Amy Chalfant) counsels her on the correct number of months she should allow before getting serious about someone else. Austin’s buffoonish brother Jeff advises him to play the field. Shaelan Salas-Rich and Carl McGahan play the chorus of barkeep, waitress and barista.

 Austin and Marcy, Diana and Jeff meet cute, then wobble into sexual liasons until the end of the first act when all of them are breaking up and desolate. Guess what happens in the second act.

I Love You Because was written by Ryan Cunningham (book and lyrics) and Joshua Salzman (music), at least partly while they were students in New York University’s musical theatre graduate program. The play has the seams-showing quality of a thesis, layered with a lot of what’s euphemistically called “language.”

 The mostly upbeat music is dominated by the kind of wordy, wandering pop that’s become standard since early Alanis Morissette. It can express contemporary self-consciousness and emotion, while also exposing banalities. The lyrics like the script vary alarmingly from the witty to the moronic.

 Still, the score is mostly pleasant and has some variation, from do-wop to a couple of second act songs that might fit nicely into a 40s or 50s musical. And it has the proper mixture of solos, duets, quartets etc. likely learned from the NYU curriculum, that with this cast yield some transcendent musical moments.

There are funny bits in a formulaic script. The original producers billed it as a gender-switched version of Pride and Prejudice, but except for a few Austen puns and distant, incoherent echoes, the claim is so disingenuous as to be counterproductive. People who don’t really know Pride and Prejudice won’t care, while Austen devotees may be so offended that any chance of appreciating the evening on its merits is lost. If Jane herself got wind of this claim she’d likely be throwing up in her grave.

 The competitive and superficial frenzy of New York may well have spread among twentysomethings with the speed of Instagram. This potential audience, dealing with real emotion in their lives, may appreciate the musical’s observations and messages, especially about accepting imperfection. But a better script and more of a sense that the appropriate characters are actually attracted to each other might make this a convincing experience: more of a show than a tell.

 During scene changes, this production played vivid taped testimonies written by North Coast people about their actual love lives.

 Laura Welch is musical director and accompanist, Jayson Mohatt is scenic and lighting designer. I Love You Because is on stage at Redwood Curtain through May 17. This unusually long run is meant to compensate for the small number of seats, so reservations are highly recommended by management. 443-7688,

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