Honoring bell curves everywhere, “I Love You Because” joins the swollen ranks of musicals so average they make us appreciate full-on disaster almost as much as true brilliance. This boilerplate tuner from lyricist Ryan Cunningham and composer Joshua Salzman debuted last year at the National Alliance for Musical Theater’s festival of new work, and in that workshop setting, it might have seemed like a harmless romantic comedy set to pop-rock rhythms. In full production, though, it doesn’t seem like much of anything.
Cunningham — who also wrote the book — courts mediocrity immediately by introducing Austin (Colin Hanlon), a rigid New Yorker who needs a new girlfriend after he catches the old one cheating. That might be interesting if Austin had a discernible personality, but it’s hard to care about someone whose major trait is bringing his own Thermos to the coffee shop.
And a generic hero means generic action. Take Austin’s relationship with Marcy (Farah Alvin), an earthy, impulsive gal who is, like, totally different from our buttoned-up hero. Wanna bet opposites attract?
Or how about the sidekick couple, Austin’s dorky brother (David A. Austin) and Marcy’s uptight friend (Stephanie D’Abruzzo)? Think the misfits might click?
To be fair, comic writers since Menander have been shoving unlikely lovebirds together, so Cunningham shouldn’t be faulted for using a classic structure. But formulaic shows need witty or surprising details to make them unique. “I Love You Because” relies on recycled jokes and the hoariest power-pop cliches.
Musically, the one exception is Austin’s bittersweet solo “Goodbye.” For four minutes, Salzman allows himself to write without a refrain, letting his composition develop unpredictably. The sudden high notes and swift tempo changes are a welcome surprise, and they reflect the character’s swerving heart.
But without question, that song (and, indeed, the entire show) would be lost without the impeccable cast. Towering above the material, they commit to their roles with an emotional intensity that barely flickers in the text. Hanlon and Alvin are especially impressive, with rich, emotional singing voices that match their acting chops. And D’Abruzzo, slumming it here puppetless after starring in “Avenue Q,” retains all the comic flair she displayed with Lucy T. Slut on the end of her arm.
The creative team sometimes matches the ensemble. Set designers Beowulf Boritt and Jo Winiarski may fill the background with silly cartoon drawings of Gotham skyscrapers, but they make clever use of a rolling cart whose various folding panels represent the bars, restaurants and studio apartments where the action unfolds. And Jeff Croiter lights the actors fluidly enough to showcase both their faces and legs in the big dance numbers.
Many of those numbers, though, are hardly worth the trouble, since Christopher Gattelli choreographs them with stock moves divorced from what’s happening in the plot. As fun as they may be, kick lines have lost their ability to communicate feeling. Better to let the performers sit still and wait for a show that deserves them.