The romantic comedy I Love You Because takes its cues from a Jane Austen classic
Young, soft-spoken director Meghan Pearson wowed everyone two years ago with her Appleseed Productions’ mounting of Parade, the Alfred Uhry-Jason Robert Brown musical about lynching. Everyone else was afraid of the theme and the elephantine demands of the staging, but she just jumped in and pulled it together, winning her first Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) Award.
Ryan Cunningham and Joshua Salzman’s pocket musical I Love You Because initially looks like a much safer challenge for Pearson; this confection for the Valentine’s Day season is currently running at Not Another Theater Company’s home base, the Locker Room’s Fire and Ice Banquet Hall, 528 Hiawatha Blvd. Up close, however, the music turns out to be heavily ironic and demanding. To measure up, Pearson put out the call for fresh troops, one of whom turns out to be her own sister. But she has four supple voices to deliver the sparkling goods.
Audiences can be forgiven if they confuse the Cunningham-Salzman show with the earlier I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change by Joe DiPietro and Jimmy Roberts, which is long on comedy with a fluffier score. Lyricist-author Cunningham and composer Salzman are unmistakably aware of the earlier show, but they’re musically more ambitious. They were graduates of New York University’s highly competitive program in musical theater eight years ago when Stephen Sondheim was a reigning god and Adam Guettel, William Finn and Jason Robert Brown were forces to contend with.
Their collaboration also harkens back two generations to the wit and patter of Noel Coward and Cole Porter, renowned for innuendo and implication, like “Let’s Do It” or “Let’s Misbehave.” Cunningham and Salzman’s tongue-twisting” Actuary Song” in the first act takes the patter song into a decade of candor and sex-before-commitment. And consider the audaciousness of these lines about a prospective “Mr. Wrong”: “He’ll have bump/ Live in a dump/ Be such a chump/ That if you hump/ You’ll need a penis-pump.”
Actually, “Mr. Wrong” and “Ms. Wrong” appear at first to be the leading characters. At the beginning of the action Austin Bennet (Alex Cupelo) prepares for a date with his unseen girlfriend Catherine Wickham, who he finds has been cheating on him, a cue for the first song, “Another Saturday Night in New York.” Austin knows that his feckless, flattering brother Jeff (Maxwel Anderson) has the wrong idea by just pretending he doesn’t care. Jeff, however, has a fall-back plan: Try a Jewish dating service, even though they’re Gentiles.
Simultaneously, Marcy Fitzwilliam (Kasey McHale) is wrung out over the loss of her unseen boyfriend Larry, when her pal Diane (Jennifer Pearson) sings the “Actuary Song” prescribing new rules for dating. Although the girls are not Jewish, either, they decide to go to the same dating service the brothers have taken, and—Presto!—they meet. But it’s not love at first sight. In Jeff and Diane’s view it is lust at first sight as they quickly opt for intercourse, which throws his back out, landing him in the hospital. Austin mangles chances with Marcy by continually bringing up his old flame Catherine in the duet, “I Don’t Want to Talk About Her.”
Cunningham’s script alleges that both sets of lovers should reject the other partner, but we almost forget this. In the comic second leads, Diane is supposed to be a plan-ahead mathematician, an insurance actuary, and she should never be involved with a no-account wastrel like Jeff, given to malapropisms. (He calls an abacus an “albatross.”) Their big first-act duet is the novelty number, “We’re Just Friends.” Marcy is a free-spirited photographer, an art form Austin barely acknowledges, as well as a lefty. The more repressed Austin writes insipid verses for greeting cards, a cover for his love of poetry, and he’s supposed to be a right-winger, a conflict that flashes only once and is otherwise neglected. Cupelo and director Pearson undercut Austin’s preppy image by always having his shirttail hang over his belt; he would never pass muster as a Romney volunteer.
If those family names Bennet and Fitzwilliam sound both familiar and awfully British for cosmopolitan Manhattan at the same time, you’re on to something. Although no hint of it is given in the script, nor is anything spelled out in the program, what we are seeing is a replay of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with the genders reversed. The no-good ex-girlfriend Catherine Wickham is a stand-in for the false and hateful George Wickham in the novel, just as Diana Bingley is the gender-reversed Charles Bingley, a wealthy bachelor. The novel’s protagonist Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters are now Austin (the heaviest clue) and Jeff. And the name Marcy Fitzwilliam tweaks the name of the romantic quarry, Fitzwilliam Darcy. Catching all that apparatus may or may not enhance your fun in watching the show, but it also increases the sense that conflict between the characters is a bit contrived.
Nonetheless, it’s enough conflict to call for resolution, which comes through stronger musical numbers in the second act, starting with Marcy’s opening solo, “Alone.” Fearing that merely having sex might lead to the weight of a real relationship, Jeff leads a quartet of himself, Austin, Diana and an unnamed man (Anthony Wright) in “That’s What’s Going to Happen.” All these lead, appropriately, to the three best numbers that conclude the show: “Marcy’s Yours” (Diana, Jeff and Austin), Austin’s solo, “Goodbye,” and the ensemble title song, “I Love You Because.” Music director Ceara Windhausen’s sophisticated support provides precise rhythms in the complicated score and does not overwhelm the players in the venue’s small space.
Supporting the leads musically and dramatically are three players in a succession of roles, sometimes known only as “New York Man” or “New York Woman.” As there are two women, it’s never clear which is which but it seems a good bet that Krystal Scott carries more of the weight, especially the sassy waitress in banter with the sweet-talking, flirtatious Jeff. In the several men’s roles, especially the (not-quite) Chinese waiter, Anthony Wright (last seen in Rarely Done’s death-row drama The Exonerated) is a born scene-stealer.
While the leads are new faces for most audiences, all advance their
careers playing against previous outings. As Marcy, Kasey McHale was
last seen as the very young mother in The Bad Seed, where
she had the acting chops but no chance to display her affecting vocals,
heard best here in the first act’s conclusion, “Just Not Now.” Alex
Cupelo was already a prince in Not Another Theater Company’s Into the Woods and Jesus in Reefer Madness but
here again delivers vocal star power. Maxwel Anderson, who has appeared
at Syracuse Stage and has played Othello elsewhere, surprises with his
manic side as Jeff. And sister Jennifer Pearson has the comic makings of
a younger Eve Arden who can sing.
This production runs through Feb. 18. See Times Table for information.