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 one of the most unabashedly romantic musical comedies ever. So, you may be asking yourself, “Why have I never heard of it?” to which this reviewer would add, “Why has this near perfect gem of a chamber musical comedy still not gotten its Los Angeles Premiere in the five years since it debuted off-Broadway?”

Fortunately, while musical theater-loving Angelinos wait for a local producer to show some smarts and wins tons of raves for its L.A. Premiere, the prodigiously talented students of Cal State Fullerton’s deservedly illustrious musical theater program are starring in an absolutely sensational black box production of I Love You Because, one that makes a drive down to Santa Ana’s Grand Central Theatre an absolute must for anyone who loves musicals as much as this reviewer.

Ryan Cunningham (book and lyrics) and Joshua Salzman (lyrics) originally conceived their musical as a contemporary New York City twist on Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice. 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 (Kevin Rose) counsels Austin (Daniel Wargo) 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 (Rose Ouellette) 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 (Lindsey Kelly), 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 dissimilar (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.

I Love You Because’s creative teammates Cunningham and Salzman have written some of the past decade’s best and brightest songs for a musical. From the sparkly Act One opener, “Another Night In New York,” to the exquisite title song, it’s winner after winner. “We’re Just Friends” features Brad and Diana in variety show mode, “That’s What’s Gonna Happen” is a great jazzy number for the show’s three male performers, a pair of baristas get to comment wittily on love in New York in the samba-flavored “The Perfect Romance,” and “What Do We Do It For?” spotlights songwriters Cunningham and Salzman in bouncy-yet-bluesy mode.

Then there are the exquisite romantic ballads, a whole lot of them, 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) 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.

Grand Central Theatre’s production of I Love You Because is the latest directorial triumph of the ever astounding Patrick Pearson, whose GCS stagings of A New Brain and Violet attracted audiences far beyond the usual friends-and family who fill seats at most student productions, and whose 99-seat plan Altar Boyz won a bunch of awards and nominations when it dazzled audiences at Los Angeles’s Celebration Theatre in 2009. His work here is every bit as impressive, proving that with a gifted cast, a superb musical director-accompanist, an imaginative choreographer, and topnotch lighting designer, an ultra-barebones black-box show can prove as satisfying as a big-money, big-theater, big-orchestra, big set production.

The only set pieces at the Grand Central are an upstage bar counter and assorted tables, chairs, and black cubes that a precision-choreographed cast and crew move from one configuration to the next in lickety-split time. There’s even one ingenious instance where two actors turn into a door frame, proving that a shoestring budget is all you need once royalties are paid.

As for Pearson’s cast, they are a wonder of youthful talent, energy, and pizzazz, with luminous futures ahead in the world of professional musical theater. Also, since I Love You Because has considerably more “book” than most musicals (for long sequences it plays like a straight comedy), each cast member gets to show off not only musical gifts but comedic acting chops as well.

Wargo and Ouellette first impressed this reviewer as each other’s exes in CSUF’s brilliant big stage production of Rent last December. (He was Mark and she Maureen.) Here they are perfection as the considerably more right-for-each-other Austin and Marcy. Wargo is the boy next door but edgier, nerdy but sexy, and utterly winning. As for Ouellette, think a sunnier Streisand (young Streisand of course) with a touch of (young) Barbara Cook in her glorious soprano.

Rose and Kelly get the flashier comedic sidekick roles, and hit them out of the ballpark. As Jeff, redheaded Rose is such a firecracker of energy (boundless) and quirks (adorable) that you can’t keep your eyes off him and his brilliantly quicksilver performance. Kelly will probably be playing teens for years to come in professional theater (no bad thing in today’s youth-obsessed pop world), but here she gets a great 20/30something “character” part and dazzles and delights in equal measure.

As New York Woman and New York Man (i.e. every other supporting role and cameo in the show), Chelsea Baldree and Jordan Sidfield provide bang-up backup, making each of their characters distinct, and exhibiting an abundance of comedic/vocal talent in each one.

Musical director Robyn Manion doesn’t miss a note as she accompanies the cast onstage on piano (to orchestrations by Larry Hochman). Tiffany Adeline Cole’s choreography is as creative as it gets—and terrifically performed. Adam Blair’s lighting works wonders on Grand Central Station’s black box stage. Joey Welden gets thumbs up for his sound design as do Averi Jenkins and Noel Walther for their costume and makeup design. Allison Summo is stage manager and Jeremy Lewis assistant stage manager. Busy-as-bees crew members are Ben Green (lighting), Natalie Bernhardt, Jovan Green, and Taylor Henderson (costumes), Genevieve Becker, Griffin Griggs, and Samantha Pierce (scenery), and Jeannie Crown and Janice Kellogg (house management).

For a chance to experience one of the 2000s’ best new musicals performed by young actors whose names may well one day light up a Broadway marquee, a visit to Santa Ana is a must for anyone who loves musicals as much as this reviewer. As for that professional L.A. production, well, one can always keep wishin’ and hopin’!

Grand Central Theatre, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana.

–Steven Stanley
March 12, 2011
Photos: Adam Blair

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