By Bill Hirschman
If you’re a Boomer or older, you’ve noticed over 25 years the emergence of “the relationship musical” focusing on young adults in a post-modern urbanscape haplessly but doggedly seeking true love in spite of heartaches, baggage and neuroses.
The small casts are young talents you haven’t heard of yet, the writers usually have a couple of promising misfires to their credit after graduating from a New York workshop program, the orchestra is often a piano, the songs and plot pretty predictable if, crucially, heartfelt.
But they are all delivered with such passion that the audience is deservedly won over by the fresh energy and recognizable universality of the experiences being depicted.
Such is Punchline Theatre Company’s adorably scruffy puppy of a production of I Love You Because entering its final weekend this week in Coral Springs. The musical comedy succeeds because every aspect — from the performances to the direction to the material itself — is so appealingly and earnestly presented with both self-deprecating humor and unguarded heart.
I Love You Because is a 2006 Off-Broadway chamber musical with a score by Joshua Salzman and book and lyrics by Ryan Cunningham, a modern tale of mismatched but fated lovers loosely based, very loosely based, on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Actors’ Playhouse hosted the first regional production in 2007.
The potential Oscar and Felix couple are Austin Bennett (Michael Shapiro), an uptight buttoned-down poet making a living as a greeting card writer, and Marcy Fitzwilliams (Raquel Montesino), a more Bohemian photographer. The east Village inhabitants are both coming off destructive relationships. They allow themselves to be set up on a date with the goal of scoring a transitory rebound relationship before they move on to find “the real deal.” The externals of their personalities clash and their relationship is doomed as it careens through bars and hook-ups. Until something deep inside clicks.
Their progress is mirrored by the yentes who set them up: Austin’s slacker brother Jeff (Brandon Shapiro reminding you of the blue collar buddies that Jim Belushi used to play) and Diana (Malia Nicolini), a yuppie actuary with a track record in dating who is Marcy’s friend and roomie. The course of true love is observed, commented on and occasionally aided by the staff of a watering hole (Ashley Price and Devin Ionella).
You know how this will turn out, but the journey is charming in every sense of the word.
The performances are fine, but the standout is Montesino with a clarion voice that is always suffused with emotional angst.
Punchline productions are an extended family affair such as co-directors Mark Della Ventura and his company co-founder Gabe Hammad (both also doing the set design and lighting); choreography from co-founder Meera Hammad; and musical direction by Anne Chamberlain who flew in from her bid to make it in New York to mold the performances with Montesino.
In its first extended season, Punchline proves it is not producing amateur theater, despite some rough spots and shortfalls. They are coping with minimal technical and financial resources, so it’s possible to erroneously misperceive them unseen as hobbyists whose real day jobs are as barristas somewhere. No, these are young professional artists, some with a decade of credits. Several have been working together in other companies and productions for years. There is skill evident, not just talent and desire.
In fact, this earnest group, like the fledgling Marquee Theatre Company up the road, indicate yet another troupe with a promising future — a phenomenon South Florida has seen before with the equally humble origins of Palm Beach Dramaworks and Slow Burn Theatre Company.
Punchline opened for business last season with A Game of Scones, and followed it this fall with The Rocking Dead, and A Very Kosher Christmas, all wry offbeat comedies with as distinctly 21st Century vibe. Earlier this year, it presented original playlets by company members melded into a single evening called #Unhappy Hour. The company is based in the Black Box Studio Theatre on the second floor of the Coral Springs Center for the Arts. Next month, it will open Fifty Shades of Hillary, a work still being written by Hammad.
And in Because, Punchline’s winning charm here makes their work worth a serious look.
I Love You Because plays through Feb. 28 from Punchline Theatre Company at Coral Springs Center for the Arts, 2855 Coral Springs Drive. Performances 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time 2 hours 15 minutes with one intermission. Tickets $39.22. For tickets, visit www.coralspringscenterforthearts.com or (954) 344-5990