Monday, 1 October 2007

Review: I Love You Because (plus musical idolatry)

Despite being as familiar and formulaic as an episode of Friends or a bottle of Heinz tomato ketchup, I Love You Because, at the Landor Theatre (a modestly sized pub theatre, with big musical theatre aspirations), is actually rather sweet and intermittently enjoyable, though not exactly memorable. It is the archetypal 21st century Off Broadway light romantic musical (Ryan Cunningham, book and lyrics, with music by Joshua Salzman), basically a New York set tale of slightly dysfunctional (but in reality hellishly conformist) and attractive young people finding love in our ‘crazy’ modern world. Paeans to individuality, being true to oneself and the imperfect ideals of love are all held up in modest and undemanding light pop tunes for the delectation of the audience, and naturally the cast is no bigger than 6.

Daniel Boys (who failed to be chosen as Joseph on the BBC, but did a good turn as Anthony in the recent RFH Sweeny Todd concert) plays Austin, a mildly geeky, anally retentive greetings card writer, desperate to get back with his unfaithful ex girlfriend. He is a solidly handsome presence, and has a strong voice (though this is not particularly challenged by the material here), though his character is as stock as oxo. His older brother Jeff (Richard Frame), who is malapropism prone, persuades him to go to a bar where they both meet the girls of their dreams, only they don’t quite know it yet! Marcy (Jodie Jacobs) helps Austin to craft a poem for his ex, but they end up sleeping together, and Diana (Debbie Kurup) gets with Jeff but wants ‘exclusivity’, causing a bit of a headache for the fancy free bloke. Naturally, both couples realise that they are both destined to be together, despite their faults and doubts, oh, what a revelation. All the cast are good, they can act and they sure can sing.

The music is saccharine light pop, unremarkable really (once again not memorable, though this is not always an implicit negative in my view). But despite all this, the show has a lightness of touch, and the production is very well directed by Robert McWhir (who was responsible for this theatres recent, excellent Follies). So far so entertaining, but something goes wrong right at the end of the show with the title number. What might have been a zippy little show (almost charming in its formulaic predictability), becomes beyond tedious. Laden with supposedly intelligent emotion, self revelation, and banal platitudes, I suddenly realised that I was expected to take this seriously, maybe even to feel something towards the show or its characters.

The director in the programme writes:

‘this smart and sexy musical is an absolute delight….charming and catchy numbers and a fabulously funny book….every human emotion is laid bare this evening, and the proximity of the performers only enhances he detailed exposition of their characters…’

What! EVERY HUMAN EMOTION IS LAID BARE…DETAILED EXPOSITION OF THEIR CHARACTERS. What planet are you on? I think that Mr McWhir is a very good director from this and pervious experience, but he is surely caught up in hyperbole or absolutely deluded. To think that a light rom com musical can lay bare every human emotion, not just some mind you, but every, is ludicrous and beyond hype. To say that this bit of fluff offers a detailed exposition of character is grandiose in the extreme, and highly improbable even on paper.

The things is that I really love musicals; I like sad ones, serious ones, silly ones, camp ones, old ones, new ones, dancy ones even concept ones. But when such claims are made for a piece of light entertainment, I almost want to get angry. I listen to musicals recordings all the time, I attend most London productions, from big West End openings to rarities on the fringe, but I do have some concept of reality (though of course many musicals, and indeed popular entertainments, can be moving and eloquent, just nothing at all that I have ever seen in life has ever represented every human emotion!).

I do feel quite out of synch with some of the idolatry going on around some of the cult modern musicals. Ave Q has a dedicated following, sure I like they show (once in London, but first in New York), but some of the groupies I have come across are bordering on the insane. And guys, this really isn’t that rude of outrageous, it is some light fun (yes I would let a 12 year old see it! Aren’t some young people so conservative and almost puritan when it comes to ‘protecting’ the kids). Worse still is the spectacularly awful Wicked (again, first in NYC, and then when it opened in London, just so I could judge the London production specifically though). Wicked is a cynical, plastic and tuneless spectacular, it represents all that is wrong with musical theatre in my view.

At the performance of I Love You Because that I attended, I heard several young women (it was an audience of older gay men and young women, with some young gay men) talking about Wicked. They almost literally lived for it, they discussed the minutiae of a performance of stomach wrenchingly horrible song ‘popular’, they praised and disparaged cast members with vigour (or should I say, mercilessly devoured recently joined female cast members and praised cute male ones. Aren’t women delightful?). Nothing wrong with enjoying your interests, and being committed (I certainly am, or could be), but they represent a big group of young people who only like the homogenised, faintly wholesome (and ultimately even Ave Q is that) product being offered in certain quarters (I’ll be pronouncing on Rent Remixed soon…).

I find this sad, at root I think it is anesthetisation of the critical faculties. But I suppose if they enjoy themselves who am I to complain (well, a fellow ticket buyer and one who wants a slightly different breed of shows produced, so taking a leaf out of Ionesco’s book, I won’t stand silently by and let the Rhinoceroses take over). People were literally raving about I Love You Because after the show. Yes, it was quite entertaining, the cast sound nice and look pretty, but excellent or interesting it is not. It is the equivalent of a reasonable popcorn summer movie, eminently forgettable, but it got you through the afternoon. I’m hoping Parade at the Donmar tomorrow will restore my faith in the contemporary(ish) musical.


Macthomson said...

This response a propos of your 'Londonlad' comment on the MediaGuardian blog post about theatre and cyberspace.

My own comment there below:

What about the inherent theatricality within a metaverse like SecondLife. Surely today "all the [virtual] world's a stage".

Rather than lament the absence of cyberspace as context for plays staged on the boards of real world theatres I'd be expecting constructed and crafted fictions to appear in SL; maybe there are some there already, waiting to be the next meme, maybe devised by precocious teenagers.

Actually, the more I think about it, the more I like the idea.
Your writing about theatre I find impressive, reckon I'l blogroll you!

Sean said...


I think you should write and stage this ground breaking virtual play!

Anonymous said...

I hope I do not become like you, Sean. You may be better at judging and critiquing plays and musicals and so forth, but it has made you cynical and you lose the magic of it all. I have heard that the more movies you watch and the more plays you see, the more cynical you become. If this means that my love of watching movies or coming to see plays will eventually turn me into you, then I should be careful to avoid it.

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