Inventive direction and refreshingly diverse casting are just two reasons to catch The Red Brick Road Theatre Company and Endeavor Theatre Ensemble’s terrifically performed intimate staging of Ryan Cunningham and Joshua Salzman’s musical romcom charmer I Love You Because.
With a book that couldn’t be more sparkling, a dozen or deliciously quirky characters, and one of the cleverest, catchiest, and often most gorgeous scores in recent years, it’s hard to imagine anyone not falling under I Love You Because’s romantic spell and its quartet of Jane Austen-inspired leads.
20something New Yorkers Austin Bennet, Marcy Fitzwilliams, Jeff Bennet, and Diana Bingley (notice their Pride And Prejudice family names?) may possibly be lucky in cards but, as the saying goes, aren’t nearly so lucky in matters of the heart.
Take straightlaced greeting card “poet” Austin (Nick Echols), who’s only just today discovered his longtime love Catherine doing the nasty with someone decidedly not Mr. Bennet.
Then there’s photographer Marcy (Laura Bevilacqua), whose 27th romantic relationship has recently ended as badly as numbers 1 through 26.
Jeff’s suggestion that Austin win Diana back through indifference 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 might not work nearly as well for Jeff and Diana as it has in past flings.
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 rocky one while surrounding the foursome with assorted bemused onlookers (all of them played by Tim Jim Lim and Ali Deyer) to spice up the mix.
Still, none of this would work nearly as well without composer Salzman and lyricist 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 of the most simply exquisite love songs you’re likely to hear in a musical.
Director Carol Becker’s imaginative touches are visible from the show-opening “Another Saturday Night In New York,” a full-cast production number that also showcases Liza Barskaya’s sparkling choreography. Having Diana explain “the numbers” with visual aids makes Cunningham’s cleverly worded “The Actuary Song” come alive as it wouldn’t without the charts. And Becker takes ingenious advantage of leading man Echols’ stature more than once.
As for her casting choices, not only do they reflect contemporary urban ethnic diversity, Marcy, Diana, Austin, Jeff, and the rest look pretty much like real people you and I might meet on a trip to NYC, and how often does an audience get to see themselves onstage?
Recent L.A. arrival Bevilacqua captures Marcy’s prickly vivacity to winning effect, and sings with a rich, vibrant pop soprano. The handsome, talented Echols adds vulnerability to Austin’s obsessive focus, and his pipes are Grade A as well.
Bennett gives Diana classic movie sidekick sass, shows off terrific vocal chops, and has great chemistry with the scene-stealingly wacky Welch, whose Jon Hederesque nerdy cuteness makes his operatically trained pop baritone come as a stunning surprise.
Musical director/conductor Stephanie DePrez’s four-piece band (Mark Corradettti, Jeff Kroeger, Glenn Ochenkoski, and Betsi Freeman) provides expert upstage musical backup throughout.
The outfits that costume designer Christine Macedo has created reflect characters’ personal style choices to perfection. Rebecca Kahn gets top marks for her many plot-advancing props, Robert Davis’s lighting design reveals some effective choices, and Jay Lee’s sound design provides a just-right mix of amped vocals and instrumentals that allow us to hear lyrics clearly.
Only Carmi Gallo’s scenic design, basically furniture on a mostly bare black set (with some flower pots up front and wall hangings on either side) prevents this I Love You Because from having a look that would make it competitive with L.A.’s top 99-seat productions.
I Love You Because is produced by Emily Mae Heller and Freeman. Owen Panno is stage manager. Understudy Lainie Pahos covers Marcy and Diana.
As irresistible as any Meg Ryan/Julia Roberts romantic comedy classic, with the added bonus of featuring one of the best original scores in a good long while, I Love You Because is a musical theater romcom lover’s dream come true.
Audiences who catch it at Burbank’s Grove Theatre Center are in for a September treat.
GTC Burbank, 1111-B West Olive Avenue, Burbank.
September 18, 2106