Conceived and Directed by Martin Charnin
Written by Catherine Lloyd Burns, Martin Charnin,
Larry Doyle, Martha Moffett, Ellen Pall,
Richard Reiss, Debra Spar, Ayelei Waldman
Music and Lyrics by Richard Gray and Martin Charnin
Musical Direction by Dwight Beckmeyer
Village Originals at First Stage Theatre
120 Front Street North, Issaquah, WA 98027
(425) 392-2202
Reviewed by Jerry Kraft

"Love is Love" brings us to that most intimate and lyrical of theatrical styles, the small-scale musical revue, where text and music and performers simply tell stories: of distinctive individuals, of familiar situations, of universal experience. Martin Charnin has assembled a satisfying variety of expertly crafted songs and monologues exploring the diverse qualities and circumstances of love. He's put together a terrific cast of talented women who can sing and dance and act, and most importantly, who can make the stories feel personal and authentic. The show still needs a little cutting, and the second act loses some momentum, but the intelligence and integrity of the material and the performances make for an intelligent and frequently moving entertainment.

The composer and lyricist Richard Gray carries the lion's share of the songwriting in this show, and his work is impressively accomplished and theatrically sophisticated. In a song like "Dibs," deliciously performed by Charity Parenzini, he takes a simple little idea recalling the easy calling of "dibs" in childhood to claim something, and expands that into a bittersweet and endearing wish for a woman's empowerment over adult desire and affection. Ann Evans makes Gray's wistful fantasy number, "Easy Listening" into a tender and impossible relationship between a girl and her idol, between a girl and a voice, between a girl and that voice. Evans is equally successful in realizing the more mature arrival of a "June Bride" on the day when she finally weds, in the real world, the woman of her dreams. Maggie Stenson has a wonderfully accomplished scene (a one-act, really) called "8:45," where a husband and wife correspond to their anniversary. All of these songs are by Richard Gray, and they really form the critical mass of the production, the heart to its musical soul.

Gray collaborates with Martin Charnin on the title song, which is a perfectly solid, traditional Broadway show song and which is reprised twice more in the show as well as for the finale. It works to hold the diverse material together, and it's energetic and focused enough to bear the repetition. "Long Story Short" is another collaboration between Charnin and Gray, and gives the wonderful Shelly Burch a chance to combine her terrific singing voice and her equally strong acting. Burch's dramatic authority is also evident in the touching monologue, "Truly, Madly, Guiltily," in which a new mother explores the "proper" balance of love and attraction toward her new child, and her husband.

Those monologues, by a number of writers, come to dominate the second act and, in my opinion, detract from the energy and momentum of the songs that predominate in the first act. The pieces are well written, to be sure, but with "Reunion," for example, which concerns a difficult child who is sent to a "tough love" camp and later to a boarding school, it seems too diffuse a story, too removed from the speaker. Shelly Burch certainly is convincing in her telling, but it feels like we've wandered too far from the women who did the songs, from the immediacy of those musical reflections. Similarly, a comic piece by Charnin called "The Note of Pete's Bed" is really just a shaggy dog story, and not worth the static quality of the stage time. I think the show could lose a couple of monologues, especially in the second act, and replace them with a song or two, and it would greatly enhance the pace and energy.

The set design, by Alex Berry, is very attractive, with clear plastic chairs and simple text projections, the whole production handsomely lighted. The costumes, black pants with red tops by Deanne Middleton, were just right and Dwight Beckmeyer's musical direction and conducting of the tight, three-piece orchestra, creates a rich and surprisingly full sound.

"Love is Love" is satisfying in very many ways, most particularly in the skill and accomplishment of the songwriting and the sincerity of the emotional content. The four women are impressive and delightful, experienced and compelling. I think the show still needs a bit more tightening before it's ready for larger markets and larger venues, but this is already one of those rare evenings of musical theatre where the audience comes out feeling like they've been treated like adults, and like the shared experience is both true and theatrical.

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