Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change
In its current run at Hillbarn Theatre & Conservatory, there is much to praise due to a stunning, musically stellar quartet of Bay Area actors who each come with an impressive resume of starring roles in both musicals and plays. However, it is impossible to ignore that I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change is packed with a number of sitcom-like scenes and jokes that today seem out of sync with current sensitivities in that they often rely on uncomfortable stereotypes about male-female interactions, relationships, and sex-role characteristics.
In some ways it is a sad commentary on how the world still views men and women that this musical has been as globally popular as it has been for so long, but then I must admit my reaction was clearly in the minority of the Hillview, opening-night audience. Their immediate standing ovation at evening's end speaks to the outstanding voices and comic aptitudes of the cast and to an obvious general acceptance that males are males and females are females in ways that brand each sex with a long list of broadly accepted, stock labels and characteristics.
With music by Jimmy Rogers that ranges from the beats and grinds of the fifties to the rock of the sixties, the twang of country, and the snap of tango, the cast of four mix and mingle in various groupings through twenty-plus musical numbers. Each is announced in projection by its catchy title, some with a touch of kitsch (e.g., "A Stud and a Babe" or "Tear Jerk"), and each comes with its own portable scenic design (Matt Owens) and set of costumes (the huge array of quick-change wear designed by Ashley Garlick provides much of the evening's best moments and humor). Each scene is independent of the next, but there is the aforementioned timeline from youthful first-loves to elderly final flings that provides a sense of flow.
Relying heavily on the kind of slapstick, groaner, and just plain silly humor often seen in television reruns of another era, I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change appeals to beliefs that husbands are glued to football on Sundays while wives are ignored, that women shop until they drop while their husbands are left holding the bags and the bills, and that men like movies with action, skin and guns while women just want to watch a good crier. A scene devoted to "Always a Bridesmaid" is memorable because of the incredible country-song lament performed by Hayley Lovegren, but it is also a source of some discomfort for perpetuating the age-old joke about the girl/woman who is always the best friend of the bride but is never the bride.
A series of the worst of male-attributed habits ("belching, burping, scratching, snoring, never-stop-to-ask-directions") are sung in succession in "Why? 'Cause I'm a Guy" by the two male cast members. In the background, the two women complain, singing, "There's a serious, single-man drought." What saves this "been-there, seen-this" scene are the glorious and powerful voices of the women (Hayley Lovegren joined by Samantha Rose Cardenas) who sing as if this is the most important musical moment of their careers. With a fine cast that includes Jack O'Reilly and Keith Pinto as the male members, there are a number of such scenes where the laughs sought and won come via out-of-date and/or overdone stereotypes but where the voices delivering the scenes are worth the price of the ticket due to their musical excellence.
Having delivered these criticisms, I must admit that there are several scenes that are cleverly directed by Erica Abrahamson which speak to family and relationship experiences that do not rely so heavily on formulated sex-roles that have been perpetuated in our society much too long. What set of parents cannot relate to Jack O'Reilly and Hayley Lovegren's hilariously sung, acted, and danced "Marriage Tango" where kids' bedtimes and needs keep interrupting mom and dad's time for a romp in the bed together? The full company's "And Now the Parents" is masterfully directed and played to the hilt by each cast member as parents hopeful for an engagement and grandkids-to-come bitterly find out it is too soon to do anything but cynically toast the announced break-up of their son and his girlfriend.
And there are definitely moments where sitcom humor gives way to genuine emotion. Samantha Rose Cardenas wows the audience with a powerful and touching rendering of "I Will Be Loved Tonight" as her character anticipates an unexpected but welcome tryst. Jack O'Reilly provides one of the evening's sweetest moments as his long-married self gazes at his ignoring wife and sings "Shouldn't I Be Less in Love with You?," listing all the regrets thirty years of marriage to the same person can conjure, and then answering his opening question with a closing, softly sung, "No." Likewise, Keith Pinto and Hayley Lovegren touch our hearts while tickling us with their cute ploys as they play two widowed elders in "I Can Live with That" attending yet another funeral (in this case, of someone neither knows well) and finding it an occasion for a late-age flirt and a fling.
A fair share of the evening's musical excellence is due to the orchestrations by Doug Katsaros performed by musical director and pianist extraordinaire, Matthew Mattei, and accompanying violinist Paula Filseth. On opening night, there were times in the first act when their superb instrumentals drowned out some of the lyrics, but the problem fortunately seemed to resolve itself as the evening progressed.
There is enough to like about many parts of I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change–especially when presented with a cast like the Hillbarn's–that, with a few shifts, it seems the twenty-five-year-old book could be made more in line with current trends and shifts. Just switching some of the parts where men take on the scenic roles assigned now to women (and vice versa) could challenge our baked-in stereotypes and add new sources of humor. Why not have the wife stuck in front of the football-infested screen on Sundays? Maybe a guy could be waiting yet again for the girl that has not called yet, or the wife can be the one driving the family on a car trip and refusing to listen to the driving advice of the husband? Mixing up only a few of the scenes would be enough to make the point, in my humble opinion. And while Hillbarn did include in Act Two one scene of a gay married couple and another of a woman divorcing a woman, a few more and earlier-placed "non-traditional scenes" are probably warranted–especially in an area like that of San Francisco Bay.
I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change runs through May 8, 2022, at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 East Hillsdale Blvd, Foster City CA. For tickets and information, please visit www.hillbarntheatre.org.