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The Perfect Romance by Matthew Murray

  • I Love You BecauseQuantity certainly won out over quality on Broadway last season: Of the 12 musical non-revivals, the most interesting show was also the most catastrophic (In My Life) and the others weren't much to write home about. Off-Broadway, however, fared appreciably better, with two shows that -- if there's any justice -- will one day be considered true classics. The first, Michael John LaChiusa's Bernarda Alba, was one of the darkest dramas in the history of the integrated musical. The other was a sparkling comedy, on par with the best Broadway has offered in the last couple of decades: I Love You Because.

    If you haven't heard of it, you're not alone: The show opened at the Village Theatre on Valentine's Day and closed three months later, having gone largely unnoticed in the wake of one of the busiest (and most overrated) Broadway musical seasons in memory. But now that PS Classics has released the show's wonderful cast recording, more people will hopefully be exposed to this delightful modern romance, which introduced to theatregoers the songwriting gifts of Joshua Salzman and Ryan Cunningham.

    With this show, they achieved what far too many writers today can't: They wrote an old-fashioned show that's also rigorously contemporary. Though they took as their starting point the novel Pride and Prejudice, only true Jane Austen devotees will be able to determine the precise extent of the show's similarity to it: In style, originality, and pure cunning, the closer kin of I Love You Because are On the Town, Guys and Dolls, and Wonderful Town, those quintessential musical comedies as much about the passionate love of New York City as about the passionate love between people.

    All this bursts forth from the cast recording beginning with the opening number, both a gentle parody of those titles' paeans to NYC and a full-fledged member of the club: "Another Saturday Night in New York" instantly signals the bouncy, youthful optimism on which the show will be built. This tribute to the city's aphrodisiacal powers is a somewhat ironic beginning to the show, which is as much about the difficulties of finding love in New York as it is about the joys; when its singer, greeting card writer Austin Bennet (Colin Hanlon) discovers immediately afterwards that his girlfriend Catherine is sleeping with another guy, you might wonder whether you, too, have been had.

    Not at all. The show builds on both its opener and its musical-comedy street cred in all subsequent numbers, which on the recording outline (with only brief snatches of dialogue) this tormented and twistedly funny love story. But first, the other main characters: Austin gets advice from his brother, Jeff (David A. Austin) about ignoring Catherine in the fraternal "Oh What a Difference"; recently jilted photographer Marcy Fitzwilliams (Farah Alvin) learns from her friend Diana Bingley (Stephanie D'Abruzzo) the higher mathematics surrounding rebound relationships in "The Actuary Song," one of the most dizzyingly creative patter songs of any new musical in years. Once the players are in place, Austin and Marcy meet over "Coffee" and learn that their differences -- he's a fastidious, anal-retentive Republican; she's a fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants Democrat -- are as infuriating as they are attractive, and it's only a matter of time until they get together, break up, and get back together again. Jeff and Diana, no fans of convention, don't want to fall in love, but they can't help it either. The city just has that effect on people. (As if to prove this, a generic NYC Man and Woman, played by Jordan Leeds and Courtney Balan, are always around to comment on the action.)

    But if the general story is familiar, the specifics have rarely been as fresh. "...But I Don't Want to Talk About Her," in which Austin can't stop blabbing about Catherine, is an astoundingly astute awkward first-date song. Austin can't fathom commitment so soon after his breakup, but embraces it with the uncertain but masculine "Maybe We Just Made Love"; Marcy insists she'll love Austin someday, but "Just Not Now," in a pseudo-rejection song so cruelly sensible, one can only wonder if Cunningham has heard exactly that speech in his own life. Songs of denial ("Alone," "What Do We Do It For?"), acquiescence ("Even Though"), and acceptance ("But I Do," "Goodbye") cover traditional emotional ground, but remain so rooted in the emotional attitudes of 2006, it's as if you're hearing the sentiments for the first time.

    While Salzman's music gleefully slides every which way across the pop spectrum, and has been cheerfully orchestrated by Larry Hochman, it's Cunningham's work that stands out most. His lyrics are always unpredictable (one song references Szechuan tofu and boxed wine; another uses a pickle as an extended comic metaphor) and fused to the action more fully than most shows dare attempt. The lyrics alternate between perturbed and romantic, and between ironic and passionate, firing at you in quick pulses or a more leisurely flow that underscore the friction between Austin and Marcy in constantly surprising ways.

    The casting is as fitting a study of contrasts: You can almost hear Austin's tie cutting off his speech in Hanlon's cleverly constricted and charmingly sung performance, which leaves him plenty of room for eventually coming out of his shell. Alvin, whether holding back or letting loose with her unrestrained comic fury, is the true find of this show, so sweet one minute and so sour the next, it's sometimes hard to remember one actress does it all. Leeds and Balan have a limited presence on the recording, but display their cheeky omnipresence in every line and lyric they deliver.

    As onstage, D'Abruzzo and Austin tend to push harder than they need to: She sounds affectedly precise, and he strains at being free-wheeling and libidinous. But does it really matter? As the title song posits, it's the flaws and peccadilloes that make life and love worthwhile, and D'Abruzzo and Austin are at least not lacking in personality. They only add to the heady blend of textures that, as with the music and the lyrics, make the score feel even more diversely New York. If they're not everything they could be, it's hard to imagine I Love You Because being better than it is.

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