Every romantic relationship has a life cycle consisting of several stages. Often, it looks something like attraction, romance, commitment, reality, recommitment (or severance). For anyone who's been in a long-term relationship, it's a familiar pattern.
The relatable factor of relationships is exactly what Oliver Blatt capitalizes on in his original musical, "The Book of Love," which opened at Downstairs Cabaret Theatre last Friday. Blatt is the creator of several original works, and for the last decade has been the artistic producer at the Pines Dinner Theatre in Allentown, Pennsylvania. "The Book of Love," which debuted at the Pines Dinner Theatre in 2009, won "Best Original Musical" at the regional theater awards in Lehigh Valley that same year.
"The Book of Love" follows a somewhat old-fashioned boy, Adam (Matias Polar), and girl, Evelyn (Stephanie Rubeo), who are looking for love. When both of their worried mothers mail them copies of a self-help book called "The Book of Love," the two reluctantly follow the book's instructions and end up in one another's arms. Time progresses from a memorable first date and wedding planning to pre-nuptial jitters and the first decade of marriage. The couple experiences the many stages of a long-term love life with the help of a zany cast of rotating characters (all played by JP Dunphy).
It's worth noting that a three-person cast powers the entire show, which is an impressive feat. Blatt has written a dinner theater show, and the actors have clearly performed that style before: The trio excels at overacting, mugging, and pandering to elicit audience laughs. (Not the best acting, but it's the kind that cabaret-style shows tend to offer.)
In the role of geeky Adam, Polar is a good -- though not perfect -- fit. His voice is pleasant, and in the second act number, "The What Went Wrong Blues," it's apparent he has a knack for rasp and rockabilly. The youthful-looking Polar is also infinitely more likeable as a grouchy, self-absorbed husband in act two than he is as a syrupy young lover in the first act.
As Evelyn, Rubeo is every bit the stereotypical ingénue of musical theatre. But her earnest facial expressions and exaggerated gestures are more of a fit for a high school stage than a show with a considerable price tag, and the high notes she screeches to hit only add to the fact. She does have some connective moments with Polar, though, and her lower-octave songs were more enjoyable.
It's not unfair to say Dunphy steals the show -- but he has more opportunities, perhaps. He plays a handful of different characters, each a seemingly over-the-top reincarnation of a 90's-era Disney sidekick, with unique accents and quirks. His voice is strong, and he re-energizes the show during his scenes. Dunphy's portrayal of "The Book of Love" author, Dr. Siegfried, serves as the narrator of sorts, while his other characters (who appear throughout the couple's journey) -- a French restaurant owner, a flamboyant wedding planner, a hippie-dippy New Age marriage counselor -- provide a few laughs and some (forced) audience interaction.
The set is nothing too elaborate; a few rotating pieces and projected images to inform the narrative. Tech elements left a bit to be desired on Saturday, as the mic levels were painfully high at certain points. Because the music is not played live, it's possible it was hard for the soundboard operator to gauge volume.
At first glance, "The Book of Love" has plenty of potential for an entertaining two hours. And it may be for some audience members. But just know that it's not quite serious theater. In addition to the $30-something ticket price, it might be worth buying a bottle of wine from the lobby cafe to soften the edges. Consider it dessert theater.