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I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change — Walnut Studio on 3

untitled (38)Far from contempt, familiarity breeds enjoyment in Christopher Sutton’s smart, adult approach to the 19 sketches comprised in the Walnut Independence Studio production of the widely-produced “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.”

Sutton finds the human value in Joe DiPietro and Jimmy Roberts’s timeless material, so that recognition of things people actually do, say, believe, and feel in everyday life becomes the main source of comedy at the Walnut.  Jokes and situations that show DiPietro’s knowledge of common threads in dating and marriage form the basis for Sutton’s production, of course, but the director does the authors a great turn by approaching each skit with an intelligent point of view, giving his cast, among which Sutton numbers, the room to be broad but within human scale, and making each of the 19 pieces its own little one-act play that entertains on its own merits.

I have seen “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” several times since it made its debut off-Broadway in 1997. In most of the productions, DiPietro and Roberts’s material seems too plangently middle class. The recognition that has such an enlightening effect in Sutton’s production comes off as hackneyed, corny, or trite. It’s almost as if directors are condescending to the audience instead of amusing them , going in for gags instead of letting actors be funny in a natural context. I’ve also seen productions that are so broad, they demean Pietro and Roberts’s humor and make their show seem cheap and pandering. Then there are the stagings that treat “I Love You’s” sketches as spoofs, the biggest mistake of all.

Sutton avoids all of these pitfalls by respecting DiPietro’s songs and Roberts’s script and getting to the core of universality within the show. The comments “I Love You” makes about dating, from introduction to popping the question, are astute and well-observed. Marriage, from vows to parenthood to settling into routine habits, receives the same knowing, careful scrutiny. The scenes examining these subjects are not jokes in their own right. They comically depict incidents that are familiar enough to elicit honest laughs, especially when played with the aplomb of Sutton, Fran Prisco, Lyn Philistine, and Ellie Mooney. Taking the opposite tack from going into pandering, satiric, or trite mode, Sutton and company present “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” with wit and dash that give the Walnut production an air of sophistication.

This is, by far, the best production I’ve seen of DiPietro and Roberts’s show, including the original mounting. The cast can ham it up or vamp a bit while always maintaining perspective and proportion because their intention is always to be authentic and fair to the human being portrayed. All is presented from his or her point of view. The relationship to the audience, which at the Independence Studio is literally a nose away — Philistine plopped into the seat next to mine and had three seconds of byplay with me and the man to her left in one instance  — is direct and conspiratorial. The recognition factor I deem so important to this production promotes immediate camaraderie and agreement that, “Yes, this what happens in this stage of dating. This is the attitude most people actually take. This is the up- and downside of marriage.”

The Walnut ensemble shines as a group, and each actor gets his or her personal moment to wow the house. Philistine serves double duty as actor and choreographer, and her dances are as clever as Sutton’s direction, especially when you consider the tiny space available for movement of any kind.  Adding to the brightness and champagne-like frothiness of the production is the wonderful music provided by pianist and music director David Jenkins and violinist Ruth Kiang. For a duo, they produce a complete and lively sound that contributes to the sense of sophistication.

Several moments of the Walnut’s “I Love You” stand out. Ellie Mooney, in a dress that captures the horror bridesmaids face when considering what to do with a $xxx gown that has no use outside the wedding for which it was intended, makes an incisive cabaret turn out of DiPietro’s country-style tune, “Always a Bridesmaid.” Mooney and Fran Prisco are simultaneously touching and funny in a scene in which Prisco comes on out to Mooney at a funeral. Prisco aces a scene in which he sings about how much he loves being a father, one that spoils his child, in “The Baby Song.”

Prisco earns extra kudos on this because he keeps the number entertaining and lets you enjoy his character’s enthusiasm for fatherhood instead of going too far and becoming irritating and cloying. By the way, the baby on the sweatshirts Prisco and Philistine wear is Dylan Sutton, the nine-month son of Sutton and Philistine. The lad made his live stage debut an infant on the opening night of the Walnut’s “Elf” earlier this season.

Philistine is outstanding as a woman videotaping her first online message for a dating site. Roberts’s script here is complicated and includes a tongue-twister or three. Philistine infuses the sketch with sincerity, vaulting it into the one-act category I mentioned earlier. Interestingly, Sutton stages this sequence by having Philistine keep her back to most of the audience while he, playing a photographer, closes up on Philistine’s face, broadcast on a large screen that is visible to all in the Independence Studio. The choice is effective as the audience sees the character, Rose Ritz, the same way someone exploring the web would.

Philistine also glows in a sketch called “He Called Me,” in which, counter to most experience, a man actually telephones a woman at the appointed hour.

Sutton, with his open innocent face and wide eyes, can play anything from being startled, to feeling claustrophobic and a bit uncomfortable among new parents, to being sincere and using his boyish looks to show various kinds of guys doing everything from wondering whether attending his own wedding is a good idea to attempting to entice his exhausted wife to muster the energy to have sex.

One stunning scene, especially when one considers the close confines of Independence Studio, depicts a family car ride, Sutton dressed in a Spiderman suit, and all of the temperament that goes with it.  The bickering, especially between Prisco and Mooney, as the parents, is funny and reminiscent of many a car trek. The brilliance comes in the inventiveness, Sutton’s I’m thinking, of making a car out of desk chairs on casters. At first, the seats are linked, each actor holding another seat in such a way that when Prisco steers the car, the vehicle moves in perfect synchronization and rhythm.

That’s impressive enough. Then, some whimsical fantasy sets in. In a display of how all experiences are really individual, the seats separate, and the actors fly with reckless abandon to the four corners of the stage. Prisco and Philistine have particular fun propelling their chairs in a diagonal motion that looks as if calamity is inevitable. Eventually, the seats are re-aligned into their rows, and the family arrives at their destination, all agreeing, “Nice ride!”

The family may be forgetting the ride’s rancor, as heard by the audience, but that audience had a great time getting caught up in the various twirlings  and crossings of the dervishlike desk chairs.

From beginning to end, the Walnut’s “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” is a total and satisfying delight. Every member of the cast sings beautifully and harmonizes well. Lively movement and realistically coy expressions abound. Best of all, Sutton, Prisco, Philistine, and Mooney show the depth of versatility they have as actors. Much of value and quality happens in Sutton’s production, and DiPietro and Roberts have never been served better with this show.

Christopher Sutton and Fran Prisco are long-time favorites.

Sutton made a great impression in his first Walnut outing as Buddy Holly in 1997, a turn he repeated in 2012. I also enjoyed him in the touring company of “Spamalot” and the Walnut’s “Elf.” The actor knows how to combine energy with sincerity to make comedy come from within the material he’s given. Reality is the result. Sutton, even when being fanciful or using his looks for effect, is human. He brings that same quality to his direction of “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.”

Philadelphia audiences have gotten to see Fran Prisco develop from an able ensemble player to a top-notch singer and gifted character actor, one who can also assay leads. In “I Love You,” Prisco shows enormous range as he’s called on to be everything from a murderous convict to a man who is ga-ga over his newborn. Prisco crosses age lines and goes from being tough to being suave, and in the funeral scene, to being sweetly affecting.

Ellie Mooney has the knack to arrest an audience’s attention on a dime. Coming from his Independence turn in “The Rise and Fall of Little Voice,” Mooney shows her ability to extract everything present from a line or a song. She is a master at voices and moves easily from a British accent to a Bronx patois.

Prisco also has a versatile voice and treats Walnut audiences to a bit of pure Philadelphianese.

Lyn Philistine makes her mark with the versatility from which she moves from broad comedy to the subtle turn as Rose Ritz, the woman taking a chance on computer dating.

Philistine is a charmer who doesn’t mind sublimating her natural beauty to play comic or character types. She was equally effective is scenes involving lasagna, football, a tiring day, and Rose’s recording.

Glen Sears pulled off the amazing. He populated the Independence Stage set with every prop or piece of furniture Sutton’s staging required while leaving room for the characters to dance, with or without wheeled desk chairs, without looking cramped. I also liked the Philadelphia theme, Robert Indiana’s LOVE setting decorating the stage floor.

Julia Poiesz had to muster a slew of costumes, and each one was on the mark, the crowning achievements being the bridesmaid’s dress, just the right combination of appropriateness and hideous flounce with a hat that rates laughs on its own, and the pert dress Mooney wears in the funeral sequence. I like especially that she resisted dressing Philistine in any kind of sports paraphernalia in the scene in which she can’t wrench Prisco’s attention from a football game. (That sequence has one of my favorite of Roberts’s sequences. Philistine asks, “How long before it’s halftime?” Prisco answers, “34 seconds.” Philistine counters, “Real seconds or football seconds?” Prisco says, “Football seconds.” We all know what means. Interrupt if you need to say or do anything because 34 football seconds means eight minutes!)

David Jenkins and Ruth Kiang are wonders as the two-piece band. The “I Love You” cast is to be congratulated for remaining audible and intelligible without miking.

“I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” runs through Sunday, June 29 at the Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3, 9th and Walnut Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range from $45 to $35 and can be obtained by calling 215-574-3550 or 800-982-2787 or by going online to www.walnutstreettheatre.org.

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