"The Family That Drives Together" (Jennie Welch, 
    Jeffrey Gimble, front; Tom Prior, Kara Greenberg, 
    back) moves beyond sitcom into the realm of cartoon.
"The Family That Drives Together" (Jennie Welch, Jeffrey Gimble, front; Tom Prior, Kara Greenberg, back) moves beyond sitcom into the realm of cartoon.
Bruce Bennett

The Shallow End

If only love trouble were as simple as Joe DePietro and Jimmy Roberts imagine it to be in their hugely popular musical review I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change! The amusing bauble of a show now running at Stages Repertory Theatre gives us a sitcom-style world where men think Caddy Shack is the best film ever and women can't seem to find a decent guy to date. Maybe it's the familiarity of these ideas that makes the show so appealing. It's been running off Broadway since 1996, and the production at Stages, now playing to full houses, is a remount of their own 1999 extended-run hit. The fluffy show is certainly energetic enough to account for its likability; the music breezes happily along for two hours without ever getting bogged down by, say, depth of thought or original ideas, which is perfectly fine given the temperature outside.

Structured around the rituals of courtship, the review features four performers who play multiple roles as they march through the inevitable stages of love. Broadly speaking, Act I deals with the journey from dating to wedding, and Act II takes on the challenges presented by marriage itself. The play's only a narrative in the loosest sense of the word. There are no real characters, just songs.

"Cantata for a Date" starts the love story rolling. Each singer occupies a corner of the stage, primping for a first date. The snappy lyrics include lines like, "Will this be a waste, or will I strike gold? Will my life be chaste? God, I'm getting old." Roberts's music is full of Sondheim-like harmonies that give the show enough power and oomph to get it popping. DePietro's often silly libretto is made stronger by director Jimmy Phillips's romping cast.


I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change!

Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway

Through September 12; 713-527-0123. $25

Joanne Bonasso, who also was featured in Stages's 1999 version, has developed some wonderful comedic chops over the last five years. She has the audience screaming with laughter during "He Called Me," a song about a woman who doesn't expect a man to call her back. But Bonasso's true shining moment comes in Act II, when she plays an embittered, divorced 40-year-old taping a video for a dating service. Bonasso's timing in this surprisingly moving scene swings perfectly between hilariously poisoned and sadly poignant.

Thomas Prior is captivating with his Everyman good looks and self-deprecating wit. In "Marriage Tango," he dons a bright-green G-string over his trousers to crow about the fact that he's going to have sex, despite the kids, the laundry and every other thing getting in the way. The actor also sings the only truly romantic song of the night -- "Shouldn't I Be Less In Love With You?" -- with swooning warmth and tenderness. He sits at the table with his wife of several decades and sings of his longtime love, while she reads the paper, completely unaware. Ironically this moment is the only one in the show that actually celebrates marriage and all its difficulties.

Jennie Welch does a fine country-western version of "Always a Bridesmaid." The best lines are about the dresses she's got hanging in her closet; she stomps onstage wearing an orange plaid bridesmaid monstrosity that represents just the sort of thing the song wails on about. She and Jeffrey Gimble (also from the original Stages cast) make sentimental sweetness out of "I Can Live With That" about an old couple who find each other late in life.

Not every tune is successful. Some, such as "The Family That Drives Together," move beyond sitcom into the realm of cartoon. The song features a husband who only feels in control when he's behind the wheel, despite his loud wife sitting beside him, nagging all the way, and his obnoxious kids cutting up in the backseat. And "Scared Straight" is a strange scene in which a woman who runs a dating service takes her clients to a prison where they encounter a dangerous inmate who tries to scare the singles straight to the altar.

Despite a few potholes, the show is, most of all, easy and fun. Even Thom Guthrie's set, with its clever disappearing props, is amusing. And the performers are backed up by a lively little band of two featuring Nicholas Baker on violin and musical director Steven Jones on piano. And while the play says nothing new (or even all that true) about marriage or love, it certainly makes for a pleasant diversion.


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