I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change is composed of 20 comic vignettes that explore the difficulty of modern relationships, and at the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre's Wednesday-night performance of the musical, one scene found a young man (Joshua Estrada) overwhelmed by the kid-crazy perkiness of his new-parent friends (Alison Nicole Luff and Joshua Wright).
As the pair gabbed incessantly about baby's first words and his poop, they juggled baby monitors and toys, and at one point, Wright accidentally dropped one of the child's playthings on the floor. Without missing a beat, Luff, in an obvious ad lib, instructed her husband, "Sterilize that," and the vignette would have continued uninterrupted if our audience's delighted, laughing-and-applauding reaction to the improvisation hadn't forced them to pause.
That moment pretty much summarizes the I Love You experience as a whole. Under the sprightly and assured direction of Jerry Winters, the show's ingenious, quick-witted cast (rounded out by Jennifer Gilbert) lends familiar material more imagination - and more humanity - than it probably deserves.
Many of I Love You's comic inspirations merely reinforce common stereotypes, and wouldn't have been considered fresh even when the show debuted in 1996: Men like football more than shopping; women enjoy sappy romances more than men do; married people never have sex. Yet while this long-running (and still-running) off-Broadway musical isn't terribly biting, there are more sharp moments than clunky ones, and the Showboat ensemble is consistently on its game.
In truth, I'm not sure I was ever more aware of this group's gifts than when the actors were stuck in underwhelming skits. An early semi-bummer finds Estrada and Luff playing nerds who long to release their inner hotness, yet the performers play dorks with sensational, gut-busting enthusiasm. And a sequence that finds a death-row inmate attempting to scare a young couple toward domestic tranquility wouldn't be worth much, except Wright plays his psycho with demented fervor and Gilbert plays her counselor with nutty blitheness; they make an easily excisable routine feel positively indispensable. Time and again, this quartet finds unpredictable ways to turn rust into gold, and while they're all supremely confident comedians, they're even better when the I Love You script allows them to relax and just be real.
Those who saw her robust, Italian-diva performance in the Showboat's Lend Me a Tenor know that Luff can be a vibrantly outsize comic performer. (To be honest, I didn't recognize her here until the first time she grabbed and shook her cleavage. "Ah yes," I thought, "I knew I'd seen her before.") The happy surprise is that she has soul to match the silliness. Luff performs the pop ballad "I Will Be Loved Tonight" with just the right degree of emotionalism, and while a technical malfunction on Wednesday kept our crowd from getting the full effect of her video-dating monologue, subsequent audiences should be in for a real treat; I may never have seen her face, but Luff's passionate, heartfelt readings made even the back of her head riveting.
Though he's wonderful to watch when frenzied, Estrada is never more engaging here than when he's at his most tranquil; the actor's best moments come when he's partnering Luff in "The Lasagna Incident" - Estrada's sheepish grin upon his exit may be I Love You's warmest moment - or serenading Gilbert with a beautiful "Shouldn't I Be Less in Love With You?" Wright brings a touching, good-natured irascibility to his elderly widower in the "Funerals Are for Dating" segment, and, in that new-parent skit, his character's bemused acceptance of his changing life goals ends a terrifically funny scene on a note of almost transcendent sweetness.
As for Jennifer Gilbert, my admiration of her talent is almost inseparable from a crush; when she was on stage, I don't think I ever stopped grinning. I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change features big laughs and plenty of inventive staging (choreographer Kay Allmand's handling of a moving car, performed on rolling desk chairs, is particularly enjoyable), but with her economical, shaded deliveries, Gilbert proves the most memorable participant of all. Her comic radiance is sublime - never more so than when partnering Wright in the hilarious "Not Tonight, I'm Busy, Busy, Busy" segment - but Gilbert is so strong that she can wring devastating humor, pathos, and intellect from moments that most performers would casually toss away. Listen to the wonders she does with "Thank you, God," "No matter," and "What?" You may think those lines are too incidental for you to even register them. Trust me. You will.
I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change runs through July 22. For tickets, call (563) 242-6760.