Imperfect Harmony

Like every relationship, I Love You has its problems.

More worldly wise than yesteryear's bar-hoppers, yet every bit as desperate for companionship, the characters in I Love You, You¹re Perfect, Now Changelong to secure intimacy without subjecting themselves to courtship's absurdities. As these legions of swingers, loners and dreamers discover, though, there are reasons (including one or two that sound almost sensible) most satisfying relationships don't automatically jump from lust-smitten introduction to between-the-sheets consummation.

Jimmy Roberts and Joe DiPietro's songfest, which premiered in 1995 at New Jersey's American Stage Company and has been playing off-Broadway ever since, is the latest in a series of musical revues to inhabit the Garner Galleria Theatre's cabaret-style confines (another of American Stage's projects, Forever Plaid, enjoyed a healthy Galleria stay a few years back). While several scenes and nearly all the lyrics range from predictable to obtuse to moronic -- billed as "Seinfeld set to music," the first half is more like "Two Out of Three Stooges Talk Dirty With Laverne and Shirley" -- an outstanding quartet of local actors triumphs over the script's shortcomings.

In fact, there's almost no passage of dialogue that these performers can't glide through with panache. True, Act One is a postmodern minefield of idiocies, including a shouted epithet that compares audience members with a localized portion of the male anatomy. And some episodes that purport to establish the commonality of mating rituals merely wind up trafficking in cheap stereotypes. (The lyric "My hair is receding/My ulcer is bleeding/My ego needs feeding/Why?/'Cause I'm a guy," is hardly as all-encompassing as DiPietro, who also wrote the show's book, intends.) But as the two-hour production unfolds -- and, more important, the emphasis shifts from superficially drawn twenty-somethings to more substantial, mature characters -- director Ray Roderick and company offer up an insightful, warm and hilarious look at America's love-hate relationship with dating games.

Whether they're dovetailing in four-part harmony, pairing off in warring/cooing duets or going it alone during a few gratifying solos, performers Mark Devine, Jordan Leigh Gurner, Elizabeth Rose and Gina Schuh-Turner exude a winning combination of vocal artistry, sharp timing and heartfelt humanity. In addition to generally classing up the joint with equal measures of elegance, beauty and ebullience, Schuh-Turner makes good use of her operatic soprano during a tune about her beau's inconsistent phoning habits. She's also effective when delivering a country-Western ditty that trumpets the virtues of playing second fiddle at the altar, and, with Devine, a tango-ish duet about a couple who combats the "I'm-too-tired-to-be-in-the-mood" effects of rearing small children.

As her man-hunting sidekick, the winsome Rose proves a silky pop crooner capable of giving subtlety and dimension to a host of memorable characters. With astonishing speed, she comically explodes at her mousy husband's forgetfulness, and, just as quickly, implodes after getting the once-over from a sexually frustrated and momentarily confused Schuh-Turner. And Rose is superb as a still-tender divorcée reduced to playing Miss Lonelyhearts in a video-dating session. While she turns her back to the audience and faces an upstage camera, Rose's visage appears on a large television screen, and in between self-deprecating quips about being "damaged goods," the able actress evokes the dilemmas of sudden singlehood. The cleverly staged piece reaches its pinnacle when, reciting a litany of problems, Rose approaches what seems to be her breaking point -- and then heroically murmurs, "I got myself here. So choose me, Mr. Video Man."

Gurner delights as a prison convict charged with scaring interfaith singles straight into an ill-advised nuptial and as a salami-chewing oldster still spry enough to put the moves on a widow attending a stranger's funeral. As a macho man trapped in a cinema showing a chick flick, Gurner peaks too early; fighting the impulse to cry buckets of manly-man tears would be funnier than opening up the faucets midway through. However, in what proves the show's most entertaining number, Gurner earns plenty of laughter as a henpecked husband (Rose's mouse-man of a mate) who cranks up the cool whenever he's behind the wheel of the family automobile. Seated in four office-style chairs with wheels, Gurner and his nuclear family pilot about the small stage with a mixture of balletic precision and rock-and-roll abandon.

Devine makes each of his wholesome, "nice guy" roles into more than walking/talking/dancing slices of Wonder Bread. He strikes the right balance as an insecure and affectionate tennis player, waves the banner of indignant manhood while waiting for his shoe-shopping wife, and casts a poignant, if overly melodramatic, light on the joys of marriage when he gazes across the breakfast table and realizes that he loves his partner anew.

The sparkling performers are ably accompanied by pianist Martha Yordy (who also serves as musical director) and violinist Livia Svyatlovskaya, whose top-notch playing lends style and flair to the proceedings. So do designer Nancy Bassett's scores of chic costumes and Gary Miller's endlessly revolving set, whose wood panels, wrought-iron railings and hundreds of furniture pieces and props provide each sketch, however fleeting, with an authentic look and feel.

As the show revs up to its conclusion, one only wishes that the performers had been provided with material that matches their prodigious talents. Then again, like most relationships, it's probably better to ignore the show's glaring faults and, whenever possible, let the good times roll.

 
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