SOLANA BEACH, California—North Coast Repertory Theatre is currently mounting Joshua Saltzman (music) and Ryan Cunningham’s (book and lyrics) I Love You Because. It’sa dandy little romantic musical comedy that’s light, cute and easy to take. The two wrote the musical while both were students at NYU ‘s Tisch Graduate School Musical Theatre. Their thesis was I Love You Because. Now if anyone graduating from college thinks writing a theses is a pain in the butt, consider this. The show went on to be professionally produced Off-Broadway and earned a Drama Desk nomination for the team. Not too bad for a senior project.
Another of their collaborations was Queen Esther, based on the Story of Purim and the heroine of our story. It was written as a family musical that was commissioned by the Kaufman Center. In addition “their song Not Now from I Love You Because was also featured on Lauren Kennedy’s new solo album Here and Now”. There’s some muscle there.
I love You Because is supposed to be a ‘modern day Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice takeoff, but don’t be put off by it. Except for the names Austen (Nick Gabriel) and Jeff Bennett (Jason Maddy) brothers rather than the Austen sisters any resemblance is purely coincidental. The boys are on the loose in Manhattan after Austen has been dumped by his steady of four years and Jeff, just the opposite, is a playboy for all seasons. He’s along for the ride.
On the other side of the coin, Marcy (Kesley Venter) has been dumped by her steady and after kvetching to her best friend Diana (Kristin Mengelkoch) they both decide that while a waiting period before getting into another serious relationship is in order, Marcy should hook up with some dude, but just get out there and leave the serious stuff for later. The caveat is to meet someone, particularly someone different than the last. Marcy answers an advertisement she sees on ‘J’Date, a Jewish dating service.
That said, not everyone who checks the site out is Jewish and in a funny scene after they all hook up at a local night spot, Jeff goes through all kinds of gyrations mimicking Tevya from Fiddler in his "Tradition" dance, hoping to prove he is Jewish even though he’s not. Maddy is both talented and a physical guy who pulls it off with ease.
Jeff and Diana are along to support both Austen and Marcy and as cupid would have it a spark ignites in Jeff and Diana and they become an item. On a parallel course Austen and Marcy, who are completely at opposite ends of the personality scale struggle to make something of their odd and complicated relationship. You see Austen is a neat freak whose life and ideas fit into a little capsule not to open until, lord knows when. Marcy is somewhat of a hippie photographer and kind of just lets it ‘all hang out’.
Some might be able to make a Julia Child style goulash out of that, but it takes lots of patience and seasonings, creativity and looking the other way, and possibly a silver bullet to make it all come out tasting palatable.
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What follows are a series of false starts, misunderstood body language and opposites not attracting. You name it and it happens in this on again off again modern day dating style of the new millennium and albeit some eighteen songs later, you guessed it, everything ‘comes up roses’ because, they love each other; Because!
The book not withstanding, production values run high. Director Rick Simas and his talented, some locally homegrown (both Venter and Mengelkoch are SDSU graduates) cast members are just what this musical comedy has, chemistry. Chemistry: “the spontaneous reaction of individuals to each other, especially a mutual sense of attraction or understanding”.
That this is evident, especially among the four main characters, puts a sense of urgency and credibility between the what’s happening on stage and what happens in life. All four complement each other beautifully. Mengelkoch and Maddy are the most comedic of the group, with their spot on timing while Gabriel is wound up like a drum, some times too much so and Venter is pretty laid back.
Some do swear by the adage that opposites attract. Consider that each pair is an opposite of an opposite. Marcy and Diana are opposite. Diana deals in numbers and Marcy in images. The Bennett brothers are as different as night is from day. Austen writes ditties for a greeting card company about as bland as any greeting can get and Jeff is a loose goosy playboy. Just how opposite, opposites are attracted begs the question but when all is said and done, the theme of I Love You Because (or in spite of) is the mainstay of the message.
Two others in the cast, Geno Carr and Heather Anne Paton are everyone else: bartender, waitress, wife, delivery take out boy, barista etc. They round out a super cast by filling in the blanks and making a small cast seem larger filling the stage during the dance numbers. Adding to the overall sound and look, a three-piece musical group seated off to the side complete the evening’s musical appeal. Steven Withers (Director / keyboards, Matt Best, on woodwinds and Tom Versen, percussion).
Marty Burnett’s set looks much like the NT high-rise city elevator with sliding doors that open and close for props to be rolled in and out center stage. On either side small doors a la the old television Laugh-In show slide open to push out other props. It’s simple and it works. Jennifer Braun Gittings costumes are a mixed bag that is at odds with times and, in the case of Austen, too over the top, nerdy.
I Love You Because is a bit too long for what it says, but the songs, the dancing, the acting and characters are so engaging that it remains a wonderfully fun, energetic and up beat evening at the theatre. With the mounting of this premiere production, North Coast Repertory Theatre begins its 28th season. Congratulations to founders Olive Blakistone and her late husband Tom.
I Love You Because continues through Sept. 27. For more information visit www.NorthCoast Rep. org.
See you at the theatre.