By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
The title sounds like a one-liner, I’ve always thought: a Henny Youngman reboot channelled by Jerry Seinfeld perhaps? Pause to imagine that signature tone of exasperated bemusement at work on I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.
The tag line, “everything you have ever secretly thought about dating, romance, marriage, loves, husbands, wives and in-laws, but were afraid to admit,” cuts to the chase: it’s all about the recognition factor.
That’s how Joe DiPietro’s (very) long-running 1996 Off-Broadway musical comedy, with its clever Jimmy Roberts songs, presents itself onstage: a cabaret of interconnected vignettes on a familiar arc. First, dating rituals in all their panic and assorted humiliations. Then, marriage, with the time-honoured sequels of parenthood, and reassessment. Then a coda that returns us to mating at precisely the time in life when we’re lugging around maximum baggage, a word Roberts rhymes with “saggage” and “draggage” in the opening number.
That ground has been broken many times, of course. And that’s the whole point: familiarity. It can make you wistful and nostalgic. It can make you wince a little. It can make you do one of those nostalgic wince smiles. There are songs and scenes for all of that in I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.
And you’ll see the charm and the fun of the experience in a crack Kate Ryan production at the Mayfield that demonstrates unequivocally — as if you ever doubted it — what a really expert cast of singing actors can do by way of making the recognition factor sizzle. Jocelyn Ahlf, Patricia Zentilli, Robbie Towns and Scott Walters have lustrous, malleable musical theatre voices, comic timing, and attentive relationships — with each other, the 60-odd characters they’re playing, the lyrics.
Ryan ensconces her production in a sort of high-colour bi-level Roy Lichtenstein comic cell, under the watch of two giant pairs of eyes — the male gaze furrowed, the female wide-eyed. Cabaret panels, one for each letter of LOVE, open to expel characters and set pieces onto the stage. And they disappear backwards into mists of LOVE like they were being sucked into an apocalyptic vortex. All very witty, as designed by Ivan Siemens, with lighting by Gail Ksionzyk.
In the funniest reinvention of (and homage to) the familiar, Ahlf and Walters are two busy Manhattanites on a first date. Pressed for time, she suggests they skip the preliminaries and move right along to second-date rituals. He says why not the go directly to third-date mode, and she says, how about skipping the sexual tension and cutting right to the sex. And on it goes, an entire relationship telescoped, from the first glimmer of attraction to the futile regrets, and then a chance meeting a year after break-up. “You look great….”
The fun of the show isn’t in its insights, but in the way it re-imagines, re-walks, re-dances, re-sings, the clichés of the relationship comedy repertoire. And some scenes, and songs, are more successful than others.
First-date hell, in a restaurant, made me laugh out loud, with its counterpoint of matching couples at adjoining tables. At one, the guy drones on about aeronautical engineering, at the other golf. And the smiling women are left to their own secret thoughts, and a duet lamentation to match (Single Man Drought). “Standards,” sings one. “I used to have standards.” “Lesbian,” sings the other. “I should be a lesbian!” Ahlf and Zentilli give this scenario new comic life.
Towns and Zentilli turn the hoary comedy of the awkward first date into something piquant and funny in a scene with its own rueful anthem, A Stud And A Babe, a theme song for romantic underachievers everywhere paralyzed by thoughts of their own inadequacies.
The age of the telephone, and the dating dynamics thereof, have passed into the realm of the historical, to be sure. But Ahlf puts a transforming comic spin on the old scenario of the girl waiting — and waiting — for the guy to call. When he actually, amazingly, does, her transcendental incredulity at this remarkable development is very funny.
Oddly enough, the scene in which the show gets brave and extrapolates into absurdity, is a fizzle, this despite the best efforts of the actors. A singles counsellor in a prison introduces the guest speaker, a murderer serving seven consecutive life sentences because he couldn’t get a date. Waiting, on the other hand, an ancient scenario with simultaneous examples of the chafing frustration of waiting — for a wife shopping in Macy’s, a hubby to finish watching the interminable last 32 seconds of a football game — is amusing. Go figure.
Credit Ryan’s inventive stagecraft, with its affection for vintage (as you’ll know from her Plain Janes productions). Credit, too, the comic fine-tuning of her cast. And every once in a while, there’s a ballad, set forth from the comic fabric of the piece and given room to shine. Zentilli nails I Will Be Loved Tonight, a lovely song of anticipation from a woman who’s been single and made the best of things.
I still find the dating scenes of Act I more entertaining, in the end, than the wedding and harried parent scenes of Act II. I guess some clichés are more clichéd than others. But the Marriage Tango between a husband (Towns) and wife (Ahlf) determined to defeat every obstacle en route to the holy grail, is amusingly fierce in execution, not least because of Cindy Kerr’s ever-clever choreography: “I’m married and I’m gonna have sex….”
The classic musical theatre score is delivered with gusto and style by Cathy Derkach, at a white grand piano on the upper level, along with violinist Shannon Johnson. And they have a wordless relationship comedy of their own to play after intermission.
This is a show to remind you of the easy-going enjoyment of laughing the laughter of recognition, and Ryan’s production is a charmer. As the finale title number has it, “I keep coming back to this whirlwind tour/ Of loving, and leaving, and wanting more.”
I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change
Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre, 16615 109 Ave.
Directed by: Kate Ryan
Starring: Jocelyn Ahlf, Robbie Towns, Scott Walters, Patricia Zentilli
Running: through July 30
Tickets: 780-483-4051, mayfieldtheatre.ca