Not Loving I Love You Because?

Marissa Castillo, Justin White, Chelsea Rya McCurdy and Travis Kirk Coombs in I Love You Because
Marissa Castillo, Justin White, Chelsea Rya McCurdy and Travis Kirk Coombs in I Love You Because Photo by Claire Logue
Things suck right now. So what can theater do in times like this? On the one hand, it can tackle what ails us with heady, provocative drama meant to agitate. Or, theater can act as a pleasing salve to our wounds, soothing us with a bit of frothy fun. The musical rom-com falls squarely into the latter category, and no one can blame Rogue Productions for wanting to entertain and distract us in this fashion.

What we can blame them for is choosing a painfully formulaic show whose one-dimensional characters offer insulting gender typecasts in a series of bland, similar sounding songs with easy-peasy, predictable rhyming lyrics. And presenting it all in a production that’s as lacking as the musical itself.

I Love You Because (music by Joshua Salzman, book and lyrics by Ryan Cunningham) is a modern riff on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (as if we needed another) in which four straight white 20-something New Yorkers meet the absolute wrong person for them, annoy each other, become friends, become more than friends, fight, stop talking, and yet fall in love with each, happily, in spite of it all.

We know from the first note how it’s all going to play out, so the trick is to surprise or at least thrill us along the way. Give us something that transcends the banality, something that breaks out of the hetero white privilege bubble this show is set in, something that shows the grittiness or excitement of the New York location, something that has insightful notions about first impressions, opposites attracting or the idea of Mr. or Mrs. Right. Instead, I Love You Because, plays right into every unfortunate sanitized version and stereotype we dread from this type of show.

In fairness, the musical was written in 2006, years before the above mentioned considerations had permeated our ways of thinking. But then, all the more reason to either pass on the show or directorially do something to make it more relevant and palatable for a modern audience.

Instead, Director/Choreographer, Rachael Logue, seems to lean into the anachronisms and cheaply play them for laughs.

Take Jeff and Diana, the supporting characters in the show. Jeff Bennet (Justin White), a man-child, sophomoric, frat boy, misogynist, malaprop-spewing idiot who wants nothing more than to get laid. White plays him like a cross between a horny Bill Murray, an even hornier Jim Carrey to cringe-worthy effect. Then take Diana (Marissa Castillo), a by-the-rules kinda gal, who thinks that a woman who has slept with only three men is a prude, but over five is a slut. A woman who thinks it’s OK to date the wrong man as your rebound dude. Never mind the moral compromise of it all. Oh, and she’s an Actuary. So, okay, she’s smart, but she’s still about as obliviously anti-feminist as you can get.

Logue wants us to find each of them charming on their own, even with their abhorrent views and behaviors. And the musical wants us to believe that they’d fall in love and actually have a connection outside of the bedroom. To which we say, oh please.

Now consider the stars of the show. Austin Bennet (OMG guys we GET the reference) is an uptight, recently single, wanna be poet who never takes risks or allows himself to just be spontaneous. Can we pause a moment to parse the idea of a prim, anal, afraid of being out of control poet? I shall pause while we all take a moment snort at that.

While Austin (Travis Kirk Coombs) is a jangle of tense nerves, possibly still in love with this ex. Marcy is a free spirit. Kinda. It seems that in this show a free spirit means allowing the barista to choose what kind of overpriced coffee you will have and never going to the same restaurant twice. How precious. But even with her “spontaneity”, all Marcy can think about is getting over her ex and finding a new man to take his place. If it weren’t for Chelsea Ryan McCurdy’s warm and personable performance (the only character exuding some measure of feeling in the show), we’d want to slap this chick in the face and tell her to stop relying on men to define who she is.

Our other internal screams shout out to the various design elements that further compound the issues with this production.

On opening night it was unfortunate that sound was an issue. While actors were outfitted with wireless microphones, technology wasn’t on their side, resulting in voices barely being audible over the recorded music. To that I say, fine. Shit happens. So then why not turn the volume down on the music so that we can actually hear the lyrics? Instead, we were left to strain or give up trying for much of the show.

Then there are Allison Keogh’s rainbow morphing costumes. Initially, our four characters begin wearing head to toe monochromatic Crayola-worthy outfits. Austin in blue, Marcy in hot pink, Jeff in red, Diana in yellow. The first impression is that no one in New York would ever dress in such grade school Lite Brite bright fashion.

But as the show unfolds, so does the gimmick. As the couples fall in love and come together, their outfit hues change and Austin/Marcy wear purple while Jeff/Diana don orange. Get it? It’s color combining and it’s about a subtle as a hammer to the head, never mind terribly unattractive in every iteration. I mean, let’s be honest, head to toe punchy color is hard to pull off unless you were say, Prince in his regal purpleness.

Prop and Scenic Designer, Kathy Pubentz, has probably the best creative realization in the musical with her cardboard cut-out prop stand-ins. Glasses, booze bottles, lamps, Febreze bottles, a bouquet of flowers are rendered smartly as cardboard cartoonish props. But Logue injects real props intermittently in the action, to possibly indicate when the couples are behaving truthfully. Possibly, we say, because the delineation is not altogether clear. So we look for clues where there may be none, grasping for some meaning in this otherwise shallow pool of visual enjoyment.

Take away the poor choice of show and missteps in production, and we’re still left with one major deficit, namely the waste of talent from this cast. All the performers in this show have more than worthy vocal gifts and many we’ve seen give knock out dramatic performances as well. However, none of that is showcased here. Musical numbers are so straightforward that any vocal prowess is rendered fairly impotent, save for a few moments courtesy of McCurdy who’s clear and emotive voice we’d happily listen to even under this trying circumstances. And acting skills be damned. With characters like these…who needs acting?

Was all this any more clear than with the two chorus actors in the show, Sammi Sicinski and Rodrick Randall as NYC Man and Woman. These are hardly bit performers in the Houston scene, each enjoying their own rightful accolades, and yet I struggle to say anything about their performances other than, they were there. How depressing.

And that really is the bottom line to this whole production. It was depressing. What we so desperately needed was a funny and touching musical about modern love to assure us that our connected humanity still triumphs. Instead, we got a story that irks us in every which way and betrays some of the best talent the city has to offer.

Like I said, things really suck right now.

I Love You Because runs through July 22 at Studio 101, 1824 Spring St. For information, visit $20 - $52.
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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman