Love Is a Bumper Car

Love may indeed be a fragile thing, but its clumsy male and female protagonists can't help "endlessly crashing into each other like two bumper cars." That's the observation of one character in the musical revue I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, an affable if not particularly insightful commentary on modern romance now enjoying a handsome Florida premiere (an off-Broadway production still runs in New York) courtesy of the Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables.

Bumper cars? This unexpected simile is more appealing than many other contemporary descriptions of male-female interactions, now that prevailing images of intimate relations include a president sending signals to his paramour via a necktie and that same woman negotiating a deal with Fox Broadcasting for a prime-time interview.

At the Miracle Theatre, neckties -- and other dating finery --- play only innocuous parts in the comic landscape that men and women traverse in hopes of finding life partners. For example, in the number "Cantata for a First Date," with the entire four-person cast (they are all engaging; three have exquisite voices), we see men and women primping and dressing in anticipation of meeting each other, all the while wondering, "Will I captivate or will I repel?"

I Love You, which surely bears the best title of any show since off-Broadway's Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, mostly captivates. It consists of seventeen songs and almost as many sketches, all of which draw our attention to anomalies such as men who actually call when they say they will, women who understand that the passage of time in a football game is not the same as the passage of time in any other activity, and people who come to terms with the reality that they are not, as one song puts it, "a stud and a babe." Other areas of inquiry include bridesmaidhood, sex after marriage, parents who pressure children into coupling, and the politics of dating that dictate who chooses the movie.

If these topics don't sound remarkably fresh, it's because they aren't. I Love You goes over acres of well-trod ground, all the better to exploit a perennial subject without scaring anyone off by mentioning grim realities such as AIDS, stalkers, or smug married people. (Personally, I'm praying for a musical based on the hilarious best-selling novel Bridget Jones's Diary, which not only explores these annoyances but chronicles dating life with the sharpness of a diamond-tipped cutting tool.) It's left up to the show's supertitles -- displayed opera-house style on a screen over the stage and announcing themes such as "Men Who Talk and the Women Who Pretend They're Listening" -- to deliver some welcome spunkiness.

While there are no Sondheim-quality tunes here (much less any Sondheim sophistication in the lyrics), there is a handful of sketches that qualify this show for its tiny portion of uniqueness. One example: Although dozens of revues and stand-up acts contain segments that address the sartorial absurdities of bridesmaid duty, few possess the charm of "Always a Bridesmaid," a song in which the ebullient and big-voiced Margot Moreland recalls: "For Tabitha/I wore taffeta/You should nevuh/ People laugh at ya." Likewise amusing is "Scared Straight to the Altar," a riotous sketch in which Stephen G. Anthony plays a prison inmate who visits a TV game show in order to intimidate commitment-shy contestants by threatening them with bodily harm.

While Anthony and Moreland are the more dramatically versatile pair in the cast, infusing their every movement with ineffable attitude and giving subtle meaning to seemingly throwaway gestures, the show's most poignant moments are deftly carried off by Wayne LeGette and Jennifer Hughes. LeGette, who possesses the least memorable voice in the cast, nonetheless does justice to the evening's sweetest number, "Shouldn't I Be Less in Love with You?," a song about how love sometimes defies our expectations and survives instead of fading. Hughes, on the other hand, performs the most technically challenging sketch, which also gives her a chance to display acting chops that otherwise go untapped.

Her showcase skit depicts a newly divorced woman making a video for a dating service despite the fact she is still seriously wounded by the breakup of her marriage. This story, the most emotionally rewarding part of I Love You, requires the actress to sit with her back to the audience while a video camera in front of her sends her face to a large TV screen at her side. We hear her voice but see her face only on the screen. The effect is not to distance us; it opens a new dimension through which we see her pain.

Aside from the skills of the cast, the most endearing aspect of the Actors' Playhouse production of I Love You is director David Arisco's staging, in which he manages to set an intimate revue on Miracle Theatre's cavernous stage without allowing it to get swallowed up behind the proscenium. The show makes good use of Gene Seyffer's inventive design, which features a tiny orchestra loft (inside: David Nagy on piano and Jill Sheer on violin). The musicians roost high above center stage, nestled into the constructed backdrop. Directly below the duo sits a large, drawerlike structure that doubles as, among other things, a bed. After all, if it weren't for the bed, no one would ever have to say I love you, you're perfect, now change.

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