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A CurtainUp Review
I Love You Because
The story is straightforward enough: a well-meaning but overly conservative greeting card writer (Austin Bennet, played by Colin Hanlon from Rent) finds his long-time girlfriend with another man, and heads back onto the New York dating scene with a heavy heart. His brother Jeff Bennet (played by David A. Austin in his New York City debut) convinces him to go on a double date, and the two discover Marcy Fitzwilliams (Farah Alvin) and Diana Bingley (Stephanie D'Abruzzo of Avenue Q fame). Marcy, a free-spirited ultra liberal photographer, couldn't be less suited for Austin, while Diana and Jeff (she an actuary, he a-well, it's not clear what he is, but certainly not anything respectable) are similarly mismatched, but despite the differences the two pairs are soon mutually attracted and definitively involved.
If you're having a hard time seeing what any of this has to do with the plot of Pride and Prejudice, you're not alone. Other than the obvious name resonances and the fact love is involved, there really are very few things here that connect one work to the other. The show doesn't need the connections, but that makes one wonder why it was necessary to throw them in to begin with. And unfortunately, this isn't the only rough edge in the production.
The musical is very clearly designed for a standard proscenium stage, and as a consequence the bisecting floor at the Village Theatre doesn't work at all. I can't remember the last time I was blocked so often from seeing important aspects of a given scene (it didn't help that I was one of the unfortunate people crammed into the first two rows of chairs, where I had enough trouble keeping the circulation going in my legs let alone trying to crane my neck to see what was happening on stage), and there were times when no sight line would have been adequate to see what was going on. Even so, adjustments could have been made by choreographer Christopher Gattelli and director Daniel Kutner to compensate for the staging problem…but such adjustments were not evident. This is even more of a shame since the two-sided set designed by Beowulf Boritt and Jo Winiarski, a kind of whimsical cityscape, had promise if it could have been used properly.
The music has some nice moments, particularly "Just Not Now," the title song "" Love You Because," and especially "But I Do," a well-designed and performed number involving the four main characters. However, in general there is nothing particularly memorable about the song list either, and there are a couple of numbers which seem curiously out of place at their given moments.
Even with all of these difficulties, great cast members can cover a multitude of sins…but here too, the quality of performances is uneven. Jordan Leeds and Courtney Balan play their "chorus" roles competently, but since there is no real reason for their presence on stage the work is basically a waste. Their parts could have been cut out entirely without any major impact on the show.
D'Abruzzo, the heavy hitter in this cast, is particularly disappointing as Diana; the wit and cleverness which got her a Tony nomination for her work in Avenue Q is mostly absent here, and she generally just seems miscast in her role. Austin (the actor, not character) is certainly funny as Jeff, but his lack of polish shows. He tends to go so over the top for his characterization that we have a hard time understanding why anyone, particularly someone like Diana, would be interested in this self-indulgent immature twit whose idea of a good time is playing Ms. Pac-Man and idea of a good gift is a My Little Pony abacus pulled from the trash (no, I'm not making that up). Opposites may attract, but this pair seems so ill-matched that their relationship needs much more development if we're to view it as even remotely realistic. Hanlon and Alvin work better as Austin (the character) and Marcy, but here as well both characters make odd decisions and follow courses of behavior which are often not well explained, and the audience is generally left to decide how star-crossed a relationship it can accept.
What's most disappointing about all of this is that there are a number of flashes of real quality throughout this show, genuine moments of humor, insight, and even an honest look on rare occasions into the confusing search for love in the twenty-first century. But on the whole the musical simply feels unfinished, as if it needed a few more months of polish in the NYU Musical Theatre Writing Program from which it originally sprang.
The producers clearly intend this show to get on Broadway come hell or high water, and they've even brought in some star power in D'Abruzzo to ensure the move happens sooner rather than later. But without some serious work, it's hard to feel a lot of love for this disappointing production.
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