With changing restrictions over Christmas and into the New Year bringing another lockdown and a now undefined period of theatre closure, it has taken a few weeks for venues to readjust any live plans and return to digital production. But, the weeks ahead promise plenty of new shows and material which will be streamed for the first time including major players like ATG and now the London Coliseum making their first independent ventures into the digital space after almost a year of closure. Announced late last year, Joe DiPietro and Jimmy Roberts’s comic musical anthology I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change has been pre-recorded at the London Coliseum and streamed over three nights last week.
This St Martin’s Lane venue has long mixed opera, ballet and musical theatre, drawing audiences in recent years with starry revivals of Sunset Boulevard with Glenn Close and Chess with Michael Ball, while two attempts to host a much anticipated (and needed) return for Hairspray with Ball and Paul Merton were sacrificed to Coronavirus, with the show now rather optimistically slated for April 2021. However, the Coliseum hasn’t been entirely dormant, serving as the venue for several of Stream Theatre’s pre-recorded concerts while hosting the digital debut of new musical After You in October, but Kirk Jameson’s production for Lambert and Jackson is the first to sell under the banner of the venue.
Much like the stunning Songs for a New World which reopened the London Palladium to the public in October (and whose deserved extended run at the Vaudeville has sadly become the latest lockdown casualty), DiPietro and Roberts’s musical is a series of disassociated sketches that look at the experience and process of romantic relationships across a lifetime as a series of couples and individuals navigate the highs and deep deep lows of falling and staying in love. And although no character or scenario appears more than once across this 80-minute production, the segments meld wonderfully together to form a coherent piece that borrows from plenty of theatre favourites along the way.
I Love You, You’re Perfect…
First staged in 1996 on Broadway, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change feels as relevant as ever as the characters steer their way through the despair of awkward first encounters, endure tedious one-sided dates, reluctantly marry, have children and suffer the agonies of breakups, divorce and widowhood, little of which has changed in the 25 years since that inaugural production. Some of the detail has been brought up to date with a couple of recent replacements that substitute the agony of waiting for a call with the indignity of explicit photographs, while twenty-first century nods to popular culture giants like Netflix have found their way into the lyrics. Nonetheless, the structure, mixed musical styles and scenarios of DiPietro and Roberts’s musical have stood the test of time – not least with the return of video dating.
Musically, Roberts’s has written a show that uses an eclectic approach to maintain the audience’s interest in what are around twenty individual scenarios held together by their thematic and semi-chronological connection. Roberts has taken advantage of those differences to present some eclectic musical styles that touch on traditional musical theatre, the rhythms of Argentine tango, country, ballads and comic ditties to bring a broad but complementary range of influences into what remains a consistent and cohesive score. Roberts’s skill is to use each song to amplify the personality of the singer and their particular scenario whether it is the fed-up multiple bridesmaid performing a slightly bitter country rendition of Always a Bridesmaid, a seemingly doomed couple arguing over film taste during a cinema date, the amusing desperation of sex-starved parents performing a bedtime dance with their children while spotting a rare opportunity for an early night in Married Tango or the clipped tones of the modern singles with Better Things to Do than endure the inevitable perils of relationships.
And while I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change doesn’t follow a single character, the trajectory of the show builds both comic and emotional investment as each new vignette bonds the audience to the stories that come before and after. DiPietro plots a relatively rare course in an anthology show by including dramatised contextual scenes that ground the songs and give them additional heft. Unusually, some of these scenes are almost as long as the songs themselves including an extended scenario in which a gay couple force new baby stories on the happily single female friend – a nod to Company – before one half of the partnership is given a reflective solo about his lost single life. By the time the audience reach the only segment without a song, Rose Ritz’s increasingly moving dating video, and the two elderly strangers contemplating a first date after a funeral, the charm of DiPietro’s instant characterisation as well as the cumulative impact of these stories has entirely made its mark.
… Now Change
Reimagining this show for socially distant performance and digital streaming has given the musical a different life and Jameson has deftly translated DiPietro and Roberts’s vision to the screen. The intimacy and connection to each sketch is enhanced by a rotating cast of just four musical theatre performers who unite in various combinations to play lovers, friends, ex’s and strangers who build a rapport with each other and the audience. The connection between them only grows as the show unfolds, allowing the tight knit cast to convincingly portray relationships of anything from five minutes to thirty years while implying characters of all ages that play to their strengths as individual performers.
Brenda Edwards’s powerful voice is used to great effect in Better Things to Do as her character forcefully suggests skipping the relationship and heading to the wistful post-break-up phase to save them both some time, while making the first move with her shy squash partner in a subsequent scene offers Edwards the chance to belt I Will Be Loved Tonight using the full force of the Coliseum acoustic as she is framed against the pretty auditorium. There are some great comic moments too as the disgruntled woman bored on a date and as the amped-up sultry mother determined to sleep with her husband.
Alice Fearn leans into the tragi-comic numbers to produce some really affecting performances that skillfully tread the boundary between hilarity and despair. The bitter bridesmaid is particularly enjoyable as Fearn gives vent to years of terrible dresses subtly linked to doomed marriages, while her outrage as a young woman being sent A Picture of His… exactly captures the mystification of the modern girl with that particular photographic practice. There is a great duet with Oliver Tompsett in which two geeks wish they were A Stud and Babe only to find they are better suited as they are, while Fearn’s tour de force moment in the Rose Ritz monologue is a brilliant piece of theatre, both delude and embarrassing but also sweet, sad and really moving.
Oliver Tompsett is given some of the more exuberantly comic roles including the gay dad so immersed with his child he can’t shake off the baby talk in The Baby Song that includes an unexpectedly funny rap sequence, while his roles as many imperfect men in Single Man Drought, A Picture of His… and Wedding Vows are a fun collection of the smug, inane and silly forms of machismo. But Tompsett also gets his softer moments, particuarly in the delightful Shouldn’t I Be Less in Love With You as a long-married man wondering why his overwhelming love for his wife never wore off, one of the show’s tender highlights.
Finally, Simon Lipkin mixes some of the slimier personalities with the hapless and misguided, playing an affronted suitor on a first date with Edwards in Not Tonight I’m Busy, Busy, Busy / Better Things to Do as well as a smug father in the Whatever Happened to Baby’s Parents scene. But Lipkin’s most memorable performance comes towards the end of the show in the gentle romance of Funerals Are for Dating where he employs a very different physicality to create the mildly flirtatious old man looking for love, a scene filled with sweetness and personality.
But what really sets this apart from earlier versions of the show is Jameson’s approach to filming and its clear how much theatre directors have learned in a relatively short time. The style here is entirely in tune with Curve Leicester’s triumphant Sunset Boulevard in Concert that reimagined the semi-staged digital style using innovative approaches to location and shot selection that enhanced the themes and emotional experience of the characters. Jameson does the same, giving each vignette a slightly different mood and tone while using the camera to create alternative storytelling approaches.
In A Stud and a Babe, Jameson visualises the fantasy sequence using a cutting technique that switches to a heightened tone and hyper-real filming style where colour and mood are designed to contrast with the real life scenario. A similar technique in The Baby Song takes Tompsett’s character into a whizzing flashback / dream sequence about a night out that accompanies his rap. Whirling vigorously around the performer who gestures and dances into the camera, it gives the song a vital energy that explodes this moment of freedom and illusion that the character experiences before a sudden return to a still-contented reality.
And these production techniques are employed across the show to create feelings of distortion (particularly in Wedding Vows, sections of which are given a woozy effect), comedic impact such as the slightly silly Satisfaction Guaranteed advertorial for legal services in the bedroom, and particularly for emotional impact, using intense close up and stillness to intensify the more touching and sorrowful moments. Jameson selects these shots with particular dexterity, understanding the show’s status as a digital experience and using filming techniques to variously amplify and underscore the meaning and building effect of each scene.
With its universal comment on relationships, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change could probably make room for more than one slightly cliched same-sex relationship and, in reimagining it for 2021, the production could have been even more ambitious in representing a wider variety of pairings. Inevitably with an anthology show, some segments work better than others but with a show of this nature the overall effect is key and proves more than the sum of its parts, with some of the bittersweet moments lingering long after the 80-minute performance comes to a close.
With an indefinite amount of lockdown to come, the chance of seeing a live theatre show any time soon feels pretty remote, so a new tranche of digital offerings is to be welcomed. With filming techniques, styles and direction improving all the time, streamed performances are more adept at creating shots that offer audiences greater intimacy and connection with the original material. This semi-staged production of I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change exemplifies our evolving relationship with digital theatre; we may have been on the rebound from our true love of live theatre, but as the month pass this slow burn anthology of stories is changing our future.