A sparkling book, a dozen or so delightfully quirky characters, and above all one of the catchiest (and often most gorgeous) scores in recent years add up to Joshua Salzman and Ryan Cunningham’s unabashedly romantic I Love You Because, at long last getting the Los Angeles staging I’ve been wishing and hoping for since first falling in love with the musical’s original cast recording nearly ten years ago—and what a terrific production ILYB has been given at Hollywood’s Hudson Theatre.

Salzman and Carpenter’s contemporary romcom centers around a quartet of 20something New Yorkers who may possibly be lucky in cards but, as the saying goes, aren’t nearly so lucky in matters of the heart.

I LOVE YOU BECAUSE - 2 Take straightlaced greeting card “poet” Austin Bennet* (Austin MacPhee), who’s only just today discovered his longtime love Catherine doing the nasty with someone decidedly not Austin.

Then there’s photographer Marcy Fitzwilliams (Aly French), whose 27th romantic relationship has recently ended as badly as numbers 1 through 26.

I LOVE YOU BECAUSE - 6 Fortunately for both, help is on the way, Austin’s thanks to his bang-‘em-and-leave-‘em older brother Jeff (Nick Bredosky), Marcy’s from her keep-it-casual best friend Diana Bingley (Shelley Regner).

Jeff’s suggestion that Austin win Diana back through indifference (i.e. be seen around town with someone new and “guess what, now they want you back”) and Diana’s that Marcy find Mr. Right by dating Mr. Wrong during “rebound time” (which the actuary has calculated to be exactly six months) soon has Mr. Bennet and Ms. Fitzwilliams meeting cute in the same coffee bar where Jeff and Diana have coincidentally set up their own “J-Date” (no matter that neither is Jewish).

Though Austin and Marcy could hardly be more dissimilar (she’s spur of the moment, he plans long in advance; she’s liberal, he’s a Republican) and despite his spending their entire first date waxing poetic about Catherine and then accusing Marcy of being “a whiner,” it’s clear from the get-go that the mismatched couple might be a whole lot righter for each other than their exes, and that friendship-with-benefits (e.g. using chocolate syrup on each other) might not work nearly as well for Jeff and Diana as it has in past flings.

I LOVE YOU BECAUSE - 4 As in just about any classic movie romcom, what makes I Love You Because work is not just the happy ending we know is coming but the getting there, book writer Cunningham placing just enough obstacles in each couple’s path to make the road a deliciously rocky one while surrounding the foursome with assorted bemused onlookers (all of them played by Harrison Meloeny and Reesa Marie) to spice up the mix.

I LOVE YOU BECAUSE - 1 Still, none of this would work nearly as well without Salzman and Cunningham’s songs, sometimes sparkly, sometimes jazzy, sometimes bouncy-yet-bluesy … and for all you romantics out there, the duo have penned a half-dozen or so simply exquisite love songs with composer Salzman’s tunes revealing a gift for melody that few in contemporary musical theater can match.

Following their electrifying intimate staging of Jonathan Larson’s tick, tick… BOOM! a few months back, After Hours Theatre Company returns to Hollywood’s Hudson with their sophomore project, director Rebecca Kenigsberg once again making ingenious use of the wide Hudson Backstage playing area and eliciting one effervescent performance after another from her cast of six.

I LOVE YOU BECAUSE - 3 Girl-next-door French is as incandescent as leading ladies get, rising stage star MacPhee matches her in blond good looks, both have vocal and acting chops in equal measure, and together they’ve got just the right prickly stage chemistry to have us rooting for Marcy and Austin to make it past each other’s thorns.

Regner’s sizzling Diana and Bredosky’s irrepressible Jeff are scene-stealing winners too, and speaking of stealing scenes, Meloeny and Marie are positively larcenous as a bartender, a cocktail waitress, a couple of baristas, some angry neighbors, and a pair of Chinese Restaurant employees neither of whom is the slightest bit Chinese.

Choreographer Aja Gomez has staged some lively full-cast production numbers, beginning with the show-opening show-stopper “Another Saturday Night In New York.”

Musical director Elmo Zapp’s bass and cello are joined in the production’s ab-fab live band by Andrew Orbison’s keys, Max Wagner’s guitar, Morgan Paros’s violin, and Austin Farmer’s drums, though sound designer Alex Ashley and sound engineer Mike Napoli would do well to adjust an opening night mix which too often had instrumentals drowning out vocals (and more significantly) lyrics.

I LOVE YOU BECAUSE - 5 Scenic designer Justin Ryan Brown has made colorful, imaginative use of the wide Backstage Theatre playing area to facilitate gratifyingly rapid scene changes. Costumes and Josh Camarena’s lighting are both Grade A.

I Love You Because is produced by Graham Wetterhahn, Kenigsberg, and Mark Heidel. Shen Heckel is associate producer, stage manager, and props master. Valerie Salas is stage manager and lighting board operator. Matthew Golden is run crew.

Romantic comedy haters may tsk tsk, but for everyone else out there, I Love You Because proves every bit as winning as your favorite movie romcom (or mine), with the added bonus of featuring one of the best original musical theater scores in quite a while.

I’ve been waiting ten long years for I Love You Because to make it to Los Angeles. After Hours Theater Company’s all-around splendid 99-seat production makes it well worth the wait.

*Fun fact: The characters’ Austenian family names are no coincidence. Salzman and Cunningham originally set out to write a contemporary Pride And Prejudice, and there are hints of Catherine/Mr. Darcy in Darcy and Austen, sorry, make that Marcy and Austin.

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–Steven Stanley
July 22, 2016
Photos: Bryan Carpender


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