I Love You Because is one of the funniest and most delightful new musicals of the past few years.  It has one of the most tuneful, memorable scores you’re likely to hear this year or next.  It’s also the most unabashedly romantic musical comedies ever.  Its San Diego premiere at North Coast Repertory is a reminder that yes, indeed, there are times that big city L.A. theater is trumped by its neighbor to the south.

Admittedly, 120 miles away isn’t exactly a next-door neighbor, but fortunately North Coast Rep is in Solana Beach, a mere 100 miles south of downtown L.A., and if you love contemporary musical theater as much as I do, you’ll want to shout “Road trip!” and drive on down to North Coast Rep to enjoy this fresh, funny, heart-on-its-sleeve romantic comedy before it closes on September 27. Either that, or get on the phone and demand that some smart L.A. theater finally bring this show to our neck of the woods … and then wait patiently.

I fell in love with Joshua Salzman’s music and Ryan Cunningham’s lyrics the first time I heard the Original Off-Broadway Cast CD about three years ago.  Fortunately, several students of San Diego State University faculty member Rick Simas loved the CD too, and brought it to their teacher’s attention. He too became a fan of the show’s “catchy, contemporary score” (his words), asked NCR’s Artistic Director David Ellenstein to give the CD a listen, and smart man that Ellenstein must be, he decided it would be the perfect 2009-2010 season opener, a decision which doubtless provoked as much rejoicing among SDSU musical theater students as it delighted this reviewer.  If Sunday night’s 18-to-80something audience’s cheers are any indication, I Love You Because is likely to be a hit with theatergoers of any age (parental discretion advised for language and sexual situations).

Cunningham and Salzman originally conceived their musical as a contemporary New York City twist on Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice.  (The now 29-year-olds were a mere 22 at the time.) Though ultimately quite different from the Austen original, a number of ingenious parallels remain.  I Love You Because centers around the Bennet brothers, one of whom is named Austin, and the women they fall for have P&P family names as well—Bingley and Fitzwilliams. One of the show’s best songs, “Even Though,” brings back memories of Mr. Darcy’s declaration that he admires and loves Elizabeth despite her awful family and her socially inferior position.  And of course Marcy is Darcy with an M.

I Love You Because does have its own plotline, though, and here’s how Cunningham’s clever, amusing book begins.  Handsome but nerdy greeting card writer Austin Bennett (“Life is like a seesaw. It’s a lot more fun with someone else.”) arrives for a date at longtime girlfriend Catherine’s apartment only to find her doing the nasty in the arms of another guy.  His love-’em-and-leave-em brother Jeff counsels Austin to go out and find someone new. All he has to do is start dating and “guess what, now they want you back,” he sings in “Oh What A Difference.” “That’s all it takes. Oh what a difference, a little indifference makes.”

Meanwhile photographer Marcy Fitzwilliams has just broken up with boyfriend number twenty-seven after a two-year relationship. No, she’s not “that kind of girl,” just unlucky in men, and her actuary best friend Diana Bingley, using the latest formulae, calculates Marcy’s “official” RT (rebound time) at six months.  “So in order to find my perfect man,” Marcy realizes in “The Actuary Song,” “I need to find someone who’s perfectly wrong.  I’m in New York, that shouldn’t take too long.”

Since Austin and Marcy couldn’t me more unalike (she’s spur of the moment, he plans long in advance; she’s liberal, he’s a Republican) and since worse still, he spends their entire first date talking about Catherine and then accusing Marcy of being “a whiner”, each is clearly perfect for the other.  Austin can date Marcy until somewhere out there Catherine senses that he’s happy and comes running back, and Marcy can date Austin till her half year is up, and then find Mr. Right.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or an actuary for that matter) to figure out how long it will take for love to screw up Austin and Marcy’s well-laid plans.

Meanwhile, in “We’re Just Friends,” newly intimate Jeff and Diana celebrate being friends “who use chocolate syrup on each other in ways you never thought of before.”  Guess how long it takes for one of them to let her emotions get the better of her?

And we’re still in Act One.

Director Simas has cast I Love You Because with a sensational sextet of musical theater triple-threats, impeccably backed by musical director Steven Withers’ three-piece band, and North Coast Rep has assembled a couldn’t-be-better design team—making this production one which could I’m sure rival the New York original.

As Austin, newcomer Nick Gabriel is a charmer, adorably awkward yet handsome enough to turn a girl’s head, and a fine singer to boot.  He finds his ideal Marcy in the lovely Kelsey Venter, who brings perkiness and poignancy to the role, along with a lovely soprano. Jason Maddy is a terrific Jeff, with a cocky sex-appeal and a gift for physical comedy. As Diana, vivacious, charismatic Kristen Mengelkoch is both a splendid comedienne and a perfect match for Maddy. Like Gabriel and Venter, the two have great chemistry, making it clear that Austin and Marcy are not the only match made in musical theater heaven. Completing the cast, Geno Carr steals every scene he’s in as a) a seen-it-all bartender, b) a sassy (i.e. gay) Spanish barista, and c) the “Chinese” waiter from hell, and the marvelous Heather Anne Paton also assumes many guises as Carr’s comic foil.

There’s not a weak voice in the bunch, making each and every Salzman-Cunningham song a show highlight, many of them complemented by Justin Deater and Kyrsten Hafso’s pizzazzy choreography.  From the sparkly Act One opener, “Another Night In New York,” to the exquisite title song, it’s winner after winner, and each performer gets more than one showcase number. “We’re Just Friends” features Maddy and Mengelkoch in variety show mode, “That’s What’s Gonna Happen” is a great jazzy number for the three guys, Carr and Paton get to comment wittily on love in New York in the samba-flavored “The Perfect Romance,” and “What Do We Do It For?” features Carr, Patton, Venter, and Mengelkoch in bouncy-yet-bluesy mode.

Then there are the exquisite romantic ballads, a whole lot of them, the songs that made me fall for the CD from first listen, beginning with Austin’s “Maybe We Just Made Love,” Marcy’s “Just Not Now,” Diana, Jeff, and Austin’s “Marcy’s Yours,” and Austin’s electrifying “Goodbye.” “But I Do” features a breathtaking blend of all four star-crossed lovers’ voices. Finally, (and this is a bit of a spoiler, so feel free to skip to the next paragraph, or not) there are the show’s two love song bookends, which may just be two of the best ever written. Marcy’s “Even Though” brings tears and laughs in equal measure (“Even though the night when I first met you, you were freakish … I love you in spite of who you are) to which Austin ultimately responds in the sublimely beautiful title song (“I love you because you’re not the person I dreamed of at all. And it’s easy to say ‘I love you anyway,’ but I don’t.  I love you because”). Oh, yes, Marcy joins in on the last one.

Marty Burnett’s scenic design evokes Manhattan in stylish shapes and rich, burnt hues, enhanced by Matt Novotny’s excellent lighting design.  Jennifer Brawn Gittings has designed costumes which fit each character’s idiosyncrasies to perfection, from Austin’s geekwear and inevitable necktie to Marcy’s quirky ensembles to Jeff’s funny-sloganed body-hugging t-shirts to Diana’s sexy, low-cut business wear—with special mention for Carr and Patton’s many costume changes (and Peter Herman’s matching wigs).  Matt Lescault-Wood’s sound design mixes voices and band to perfection.

San Diegans are indeed fortunate to be among the first in the West to get to experience this absolutely wonderful new musical comedy. Until L.A. gets its own production (hint, hint), there’s no better reason to drive down south these days than to see I Love You Because.  Because.

North Coast Repertory, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Dr., Ste. D, Solana Beach.

–Steven Stanley
September 6, 2009
                                                                                                     Photos: Aaron Rumley

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