Goddamit! I found Playhouse-Square's latest long-running endeavor, I Love You Because, to be almost as cute as it thinks it is. Not only does this worry me, but I find it to be a mystery worthy of the brain of Sherlock Holmes.
Composer Joshua Salzman and librettist-lyricist Ryan Cunningham have created that brand of musical Kryptonite designed to send hard-edged theater critics hurtling either into a bar or a sanitarium. It's a singing and dancing, prepackaged Hallmark card, drenched in Pepto Bismol-pink preciousness.
Laden with winsome winks and pseudo-sophisticated references ranging from sushi to Rock Hudson's homosexuality, the show is designed to be served up with daiquiris. It's been franchised by a horde of theaters from the Saskatoon Summer Players to Repertory Philippines, and is yet another affirmation that there's nothing new under the sun.
I Love You Because features those two obligatory couples who have trod the boards since Nero had a season subscription: one being the warriors wounded by previous relationships who are tentatively seeking new love with each other, and the second being the comic pair of friends perpetually offering wisecracks and advice. And off to the side, we also have updated Manhattan variants on the bawdy milkmaid and a court jester.
In tone, the work reaches for the playful vintage smut of such early '60s sex romps as Under the Yum Yum Tree. The score, which seems to evaporate before it leaves the performers' throats, reminds us of saucy odes that Burt Bacharach and Hal David might have composed if they had decided to musicalize Love, American Style.
So why does it all click so smoothly at the 14th Street Theatre? We must lay the laurels at the energetic tootsies of director Victoria Bussert. An uncanny paradox has occurred here. Bussert is known for injecting kinky sexuality into the most unlikely works. We would not be surprised if she gave us a Sound of Music populated with nun dominatrixes. But here she has floored us by unearthing the innocent soul of a smutty soap bubble.
To explain how, it's necessary to invoke the name of Jimmy Stewart. A few decades ago, when I found myself describing every performer from corpulent black women to Cirque du Soleil acrobats in comparison to the legendary film star, I called a halt. But here comes Bussert's discovery of Corey Mach, who displays so much emotional delicacy and wounded innocence that describing his performance calls for mention of either Stewart or Lassie. His magnetism and overpowering humanity refresh every cardboard musical-theater bromide with bedrock truthfulness.
He is not, however, alone on the stage. Having worked on the piece for many weeks, the solid cast of six has congealed into an incredibly charismatic ensemble far superior to its material. In its continuing attempt to fill the 14th Street Theatre with a long-running tenant, PlayhouseSquare has finally come up with a show whose enjoyment doesn't require toasting Uncle Luigi, playing Bingo or experiencing menopause. We can just sit back and savor the eternal joy of love triumphant.
I Love You Because Through May 17 14th Street Theatre 2037 E. 14th St. 216.241.6000