There’s a front-row, edge-of-the-stage feel to California Public Theatre’s cute — if a little too predictable and precious – “I Love You Because.” It’s like being at a rock concert where the performers can reach down and touch the peppy youngsters who have clawed their way to the front. My advice: If you like a little bit more space than an arm’s length between you and the happy folks belting out your musical theater, I’d sit in the third row. Which is the back row.
Director Eric Day took an interesting approach to using the Voice Shop’s small, boxy, storefront theater space: He divided it lengthwise, constructing a very shallow, long stage, which gave room for only three long rows of seats in the audience. At first I disliked the configuration, but it sort of grew on me. And it did allow Day to construct a more elaborate set depicting a contemporary Manhattan scene, including a quintessential old-fashioned street light.
The configuration of the space does allow you to get close to some of Fresno’s top-notch musical-theater performers. Terry Lewis plays Austin Bennet, a fussy New York greeting-card writer recently dumped by the off-stage Catherine, the love of his life. When he’s set up on a blind double date with a free-spirit photographer named Marcy (Debi Ruud), also coming off a bad breakup, the chemistry between them is toxic at first, of course. (How could it be a romantic comedy without the sparring?)
In the meantime, Austin’s brother, Jeff (played by Brian Pucheu) hooks up with Marcy’s friend, Diana (Heather Karsevar), but Jeff is too scared to commit.
All this is played out against the contemporary New York City dating scene. (The show was first performed Off-Broadway in 2006.) This gives Ryan Cunningham, who wrote the book and lyrics, lots of chances to be “edgy” with references to penis pumps and getting laid. But even with its smattering of adults-only language and a cynical, calculated take on slogging through a grim dating world, the musical has a sort of oafishly sweet, Midwest sensibility, thanks to Joshua Salzman’s buoyant music. (I’m a particular fan of Marcy’s first-act closing song, “Just Not Now.”)
There’s a gimmick involved here as well: “I Love You Because” considers itself a modern-day adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” with genders reversed. (One clue for Austen fans: a character named Bennet with one “T.”) Don’t waste much effort trying to make the leap, however. It’s far better to settle in to the worn but warm opposites-attract theme.
Day’s solid direction doesn’t let things get too trite, however. And on the second-weekend performance I attended, each member of the cast had a chance to shine, from Pucheu’s charismatic delivery and Karsevar’s snarky sidekick wisecracks to Lewis’ beautiful rendition of the closing title song. I don’t think the chemistry is as strong between Lewis and Ruud with these characters compared to their recent “Rancho Tesoro” romantic connection — maybe the shows just came too close together — and Ruud has some nervous acting mannerisms that are especially apparent in the intimate space, but the chance to hear her sing the aforementioned “Just Not Now,” along with the bittersweet “Even Though,” is still a privilege.
Then there are the two remaining members of the cast, known only as NYC Woman (played by Amalie Larsen) and NYC Man (Taylor Stephenson), who are standouts. Playing a variety of bartender/waiter supporting roles, they nail every moment they need to on stage, particularly in the smartly staged and briskly performed “What Do We Do It For?”, a show-stopper. I didn’t love this show, but I did like it — “Because” of a generous cast.