By Eric Marchese | Special to the NB Indy
It makes perfect sense for Laguna Playhouse to program “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” for the current, pandemic comeback season.
The hit 1996 musical has previously had a huge impact on the company’s fortunes, delivering a resounding success during the Playhouse’s ’97-’98 season.
The Off-Broadway show by Joe DiPietro (book and lyrics) and Jimmy Roberts (music) is essentially a string of musical numbers and a handful of sketches connected by the theme of relationships, running the gamut from dating and sex to marriage, parenting, separation, divorce, and late-in-life romance.
In the process, the show reminds us of the lengths to which we’ll go to navigate the ins, outs, ups and downs of various romantic scenarios.
DiPietro’s lyrics and sketches are essentially tongue-in-cheek, with a breezy ambiance and a general bent toward mainstream topics. Roberts is an adept composer, but his score is obviously meant to showcase DiPietro’s work and to punch across the lyrics.
The lighthearted, wacky/goofy contours of the first skit pretty much typify the show’s overall tone: We watch as a couple (Danny Crowe and Alison Nusbaum) on their first date agree to save time – and avoid the anticipated slings and arrows of becoming involved – by fast-forwarding through the entire relationship.
Listed in the program as “Man 1,” “Man 2,” “Woman 1” and “Woman 2,” the performers slip into and out of a wide range of characterizations, making the challenging process look easy. All four – Crowe, Nusbaum, John Adkison and MaryAnn DiPietro (no relation to this show’s co-creator) – couldn’t be better, each moving fluidly between light comedy and more marked seriousness.
Reflecting DiPietro’s style, all of the characters are essentially glib. The result is a fast-moving show that skirts most of the more pain-laden aspects of romance. Not that “…Now Change” is superficial – it’s just not particularly deep or profound (with one notable exception).
The skits have the off-the-cuff feel of “Saturday Night Live” sketch material, and each song is a vignette-style tale in miniature.
A sketch depicting a singles event at San Quentin State Prison is inspired comic lunacy. So is a skit in which new parents turn off a still-single pal with their incessant baby talk and baby-obsessive behavior, typified by the wife-to-husband line “thank you for fertilizing my eggs.”
The “Marriage Tango” skit and song deliver ironic commentary on the fact that married life can (and often does) become so exhausting and obligation-laden that couples find no time for romance or sex.
A whimsical Act Two sketch cleverly examines two sides of the same coin: the tribulations of a football widow, isolated by her husband’s obsessive fandom during football season, and those of a man whose wife is similarly obsessed with shopping, a fixation whose goal isn’t the acquisition of desired clothes and shoes, but the process itself.
Not all the material can said to be as inspired: To wit, the humor of Act Two’s “On the Highway of Love” is no more than perfunctory.
Perhaps by design, much of the evening’s best arrives towards the conclusion. Adkison’s delivery of the solo song “Shouldn’t I Be Less in Love?” is achingly poignant as a husband softly sings to his wife of 35 years, admiring her during a routine Sunday breakfast.
The production’s most reflective and profound scene, the Sondheim-esque number plumbs depths of sentiment unseen elsewhere in the show.
“The Very First Dating Video of Rose Ritz” skit that immediately follows is as potent, a disarmingly charming vignette about a recent divorcee, Rose Ritz (MaryAnn DiPietro), re-entering the dating scene after 15 years of a marriage that went sour.
The humor of the character’s monologue, delivered as she tapes her first video for a dating service, is by turns scorching and touching as Rose’s bitter honesty generates caustic remarks that trigger our laughter. One pleasant surprise is that it’s also refreshingly free of clichés – something that can generally be said for the entire show.
On that skit’s heels is “Funerals Are for Dating,” a seductively sweet gem which continues a similar line of thought and feeling as the video dating sketch, depicting an elderly gent (Crowe) hitting on an aging gal (Nusbaum) as each attends the same wake.
In sketch and song, the duo signal their characters’ resigned acceptance of the fact that their best years are behind them – but also their concomitant willingness to entertain a possible new connection so late in life.
In fact, the best moments in this show, and in director Paula Hammons Sloan’s adept staging, are those that win us over with subtlety and finesse as opposed to more overt laugh-getters.
Also deserving of high praise are the onstage musical accompanists – pianist (and musical director) Ricky Pope, violinist Julia Hoffmann, and bass player Grant Alexander Brown.
The show’s closing moments recap the preceding two hours by observing that most of us spend our entire lives searching for “someone you think is perfect – and then you spend the rest of your life trying to change them.”
Yet, however clever and memorable and however much truth it carries, the show’s title is essentially a catch-all for a wide range of material that doesn’t actually depict the phenomenon described.
DiPietro and Roberts showed good sense in not providing literal examples of that. Hard to imagine any theater team finding a way to create something entertaining out of exposing the nuances of that psychological and emotional ball of wax.
Moulton Theatre, Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Drive, Laguna Beach. April 20-May 8. Running time (intermission included): About two hours. Tickets: $51 to $81. Ticket purchase/information: 949-497-2787, lagunaplayhouse.org.