I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change
Above the Arts
3 July 2015
As the cast took their final bows at the opening night performance, Julie Atherton turned to the audience and mouthed “It’s fucking hot!” As in every other aspect of her delivery over the course of the evening, her timing was impeccable, her delivery sure to receive maximum impact. In complete agreement, the cheering crowd applauded her honesty with extra vigour.
Whatever the temperature may have been on the streets of central London, inside the Above the Arts auditorium it seemed Sahara noontime: hot and humid, with a fan recycling hot air. While the amiable theatre staff offered copious amounts of water, kindly, the atmosphere was enervating.
But although it must have been infinitely worse for the four performers, given they were doing routines, quick changes, and performing under lights, none flagged or gave any indication that they were not perfectly cool and relaxed. This was professionalism with a capital P.
I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, revived by Kirk Jameson and now playing at Above the Arts, is a 1996 Off-Broadway musical sketchbook; a series of loosely connected scenes on the topic of heterosexual relationships, with songs. In the manner of Gilbert and Sullivan and a few Shakespearean works , it sometimes comes with an alternative title: “Everything you have ever secretly thought about dating, romance, marriage, lovers, husbands, wives and in-laws, but were afraid to admit.”
With a book and lyrics by Joe Dipietro and a score from Jimmy Roberts, the piece is a cynical (mostly) set of observations about the types of men and women you might find in New York (so there are several skits which turn on Jewish tropes) which engages or evokes almost every cliche about the wooing, union and battle of the sexes imaginable. It’s unsubtle stuff, laced with sexual banter and references, genuinely funny in parts and, unexpectedly, touching in others.
The music is pleasant but unmemorable and even though not even an hour has passed since the performance ended, no musical phrase plays on in the mind. There are no earworms here, but, then, earworms don’t count for that much really. Humability on first hearing is vastly over-rated. The impression the score leaves is rather like the glow one feels after a dry martini made with inferior ingredients: pleasant enough while it lasted, but at the end there was a yearning for something better.
A couple of songs stand out: “Why? Cos I’m A Guy”, “He Called Me”, “Always A Bridesmaid” and “Shouldn’t I Be Less In Love With You?”. On reflection, however, that is more about the performances than the raw material.
And, in a nutshell, that is the strength and the weakness of this show. It really is of only marginal interest, has nothing fresh or insightful to offer, but can be, as it is here, a showcase for the talents of four exceptional performers. In this, director Jameson shows his skill: the casting is superb.
Watching Julie Atherton, Simon Lipkin, Gina Best and Samuel Holmes work their magic, individually, in couples, and as a quartet, it was difficult not to wonder if there was actually anything, any material, into which these four could not breathe life, and let fly higher than it has any business flying. They certainly give I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change an energy, an enthusiasm, an ineffable joy which far exceeds its obvious potential.
Atherton is exceptional at creating slightly kooky, off-beat, but enormously charming, female characters. The eclectic assortment of femme fascinators she essays here is delicious. Her comic skills are exceptional, and particularly good was her “safe for the baby” fascist mother. Equally, though, Atherton revealed a brittle, bitter vulnerability in a monologue where her character records a dating video: “The Very First Dating Video of Rose Ritz”. She is a performer who is always in top gear, always alert to the possibilities of the moment. Her eyes dazzle with understanding and enticing expectation.
Mercurial and powerful, Lipkin brings a thrilling sense of the unexpected to everything he does. He makes choices which are far from obvious, and this leads to genuine comic delight, as well as dramatic shifts of tone and character in the space of a heartbeat. He is one of those performers who acts with his entire body, fearlessly and engagingly. Cuddly, indifferent, calculating, loving, bored, desperate, frantic and appalled – voice, face, eyes, posture and walk all combine to effortlessly paint whatever picture Lipkin wants to summon up. Like a surprise firecracker, he brings colour and depth to his every moment.
Poised and stylish throughout, Gina Beck enjoys herself immensely. From the cocktail sipping power gal keen on moving quickly through the stages of a relationship on date one to the Jewish widow who allows herself to be picked up by a salami-sandwich carrying stranger at a funeral, Beck creates a range of deeply intriguing, quite real characters. She nails their distinguishing features with laser-like precision. Her performance continually makes the words in the script sing, even when there is no music. She has the solo of the night – “Always A Bridesmaid” – and delivers it with a sassy, sensual weariness that is superb.
While Lipkin corners the market on the the big, blokey male characters, Holmes gets the Brooks Brothers/Harvard end of the range and sparkles there. Knowing, arch and crisp, his characters revel in angst, indecision and uncertainty. This lets Holmes provide a wonderful juxtaposition for all of the other characters created by his co-stars. Fastidious, slightly tortured, occasionally facile, Holmes creates enormous fun, whether it is as the geeky car loving father, the neurotic dressing for a first date, the Jewish funeral opportunist, or the child-proof testing robotic Dad with a near fetish for slide shows. Everything works.
On top of the performances, the four artists each have terrific voices, and together their harmonies are spot-on and beguiling. It is hard to believe that this score has ever been better sung than it is here, so full kudos to Scott Morgan for musical direction.
Sam Spencer-Lane provides quirky and fresh choreography; the only issue is that there is not enough of it. Some of the numbers positively shrieked for movement. But what there is works extremely well and the cast manage it all with ease and assuredness.
Kirk Jameson’s direction ensures that there is plenty of interest, and the pace is almost cyclonic, appropriately. But there are many moments when the silence of the Eye of the Storm is permitted to impede upon the inevitability of the race to the finale, and all the better for that. However, no thought was given to overcoming the shortcomings of the theatre – quite apart from the heat, the playing area is on the same level as the seating, which results in quite a lot of the action being totally obscured. Urgent attention is needed to remedy this.
This is a much better cast, performed and sung production of I Love, You’re Perfect, Now Change than the raw material really deserves. It’s dated and a little limp, this piece. Rather like a saggy balloon that has seen its moment in the sun. The trick is that this very talented cast push their own brand of fresh oxygen into it, so that it swells beyond expectation, almost to bursting point.
Bravo to the cast.