Time's a funny thing. It's hard to believe it's been 14 years since the first time my socks were charmed completely off by Joe DiPietro and Jimmy Robert's musical essay on the perils of romance, I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change. It really does seem like just yesterday since Kim Justis, Christopher Swan, Carla McDonald, and Guy Olivieri introduced Memphis theatergoers to DiPietro, the playwright and lyricist who would, in turn, introduce Memphis (the musical) to Broadway. Playhouse on the Square's current mainstage revival is just about as minimalist as musical theater gets, and nearly as captivating as the show's regional premiere. It may not be perfect, but it's a welcome adult alternative to the juvenile fare and holiday-themed perennials that occupy stages this time of year.
I'm still not sold on every aspect of the show, though the complaints I have are relatively minor. Like so many contemporary scripts, I Love You tends to substitute subtext for dialogue. In other words, the characters just come right out and say the things that, even in this kind of sketch comedy, audiences should be allowed to discover over time. The best example of this is in the show's very first musical number, "Cantata for a First Date," when the characters all begin singing, "But I've got baggage, emotional baggage, a planeload of baggage, that causes much saggage." Well, of course you do, if you didn't we wouldn't be interested. So stop telling us, and get on with the business of the show. Thankfully, that's more or less what happens.
I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change is a fully clothed burlesque show, stripped from the glittery tease and feathery illusions of glamour. Oh sure, in their preface to the script, the authors beg the performers to play the scenes for honesty, not laughs, noting that the comedy will be better that way, but that's just good advice in any case. The musical is still a contemporary take on baggy-pants vaudeville comedy, and that lineage was warmly evident in Kevin Shaw's 1994 production at the intimate old Circuit Playhouse. A lush, red velvet curtain and illuminated, hand-made placards announcing the names of the various sketches placed this compendium of modern love in a kitschy vintage frame. The revival, directed by Dave Landis, is more technological, with the names of the sketches spelled out on a digital screen above the stage. Even with a piano and violin on stage all the time, this small show feels a bit adrift in the bigger, seemingly emptier space. Fortunately, Landis has assembled a cast that's more than capable of filling the void.
There's no narrative connecting the musical numbers and comedy sketches in I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change. Each bit is self-contained. "Satisfaction Guaranteed" is a music-free skit satirizing late-night TV commercials for law firms. These sharks will arbitrate to get you the kink you deserve, and even sue your partner if they fail to satisfy you in bed. It plays out like an early-season Saturday Night Live skit, still funny if a little stale. "A Stud and a Babe" is timeless by comparison. It's like a tiny little musical inside a musical showing us how even wallflowers can get lucky on occasion. "Tear Jerk" is another joke that still works in spite of its well-worn subject matter. It will appeal to every man who has ever agreed to take his date to a "chick flick."
The multitalented Jordan Nichols is fully in his element in this musical comedy, as is Kimberly Baker, an able-bodied veteran of shows like Pippin and Urinetown. Lynden Lewis, who turned heads in the title role of Mary Poppins, shows her range and versatility here, but Justin Asher delivers the night's biggest laughs. In recent years Asher has devoted himself to playwriting and set design, and his onstage appearances have been limited to sight gags (albeit very good sight gags) taking advantage of the actor's height in shows like Young Frankenstein and The Addams Family. Asher's a strong vocalist and a top-notch character actor. He's especially funny here in a skit called "Scared Straight ... to the Altar," where he plays a hardened mass murderer offering some extremely effective relationship advice. Whatever works, amiright?