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We think of love as such a complicated thing, when the recipe is simple: one man, one woman, one waiter. So argues Williamston Theatre's Five Course Love, in a bawdy production that repeatedly defies expectations. Directed by Tom Woldt, the one-act musical sprawls and meanders, but just when it appears to be no more than a series of barely linked vignettes about the marriage of sex and international cuisine, playwright/composer Gregg Coffin ties it all together handsomely.

To be fair, love remains hidden for most of the 90-minute production. Instead, the first scenes are more concerned with aspects of passion and lust: four increasingly rowdy demonstrations that perversion knows no nationality. Performers Laura Croff, Matthew Gwynn, and Aaron T. Moore each play five different characters, changing costumes and hair as sharply as they change their accents. In the absence of a clear plot line, the production relies heavily on its jokes — big comedy founded in euphemisms, sight gags, and over-the-top characterization, giving much of the show a musical-sketch-comedy feel. However, it's the ending that really sparks: it's clever, it justifies everything that precedes it, and I never saw it coming.

Moore is perfectly suited for his several waiter roles and makes each a delight, veering from impersonally familiar to fanatically servile to deliciously smug as he orchestrates each transition. As the various ingenues, Croff avoids the unattainable-woman stereotype, bringing unapologetic heat to her characters and giving one a resonant counterpoint of lovelorn woe. However, Williamston newcomer Gwynn turns in the funniest and most endearing performances as the male love interests, burrowing into the character's hubris or insecurity or cavernous oblivion and making it sweet and redeemable. Under the guidance of musical director Jeff English, the performers skillfully tackle the mostly uptempo tunes with overblown enthusiasm, yet clearly articulate each lyric — even in the occasional mile-a-minute chatter song. Group numbers go over just as well if not better, especially in the electrically charged Italian restaurant scene. Unfortunately, Croff and Gwynn's otherwise-blistering passion is sometimes called into question by their apparent discomfort with the amateurish choreography, a major weakness of the production.

The purported through line of the restaurant setting seems curiously inconsequential; the characters give up on even sitting at the table, turning the primary set piece into a centrally located obstacle. Bartley H. Bauer's out-of-the-ether set is aggressively neutral so as to pass as establishments as varied as a cantina and a 50s nostalgia diner; the only elements that change are menus, glassware, and restaurant logo. Thorough costumes by Melanie Schuessler are a major assist in setting each scene. A few audience members are seated in the better-than-front row at their own tables on the corners of the stage, blurring the line between theater patron and restaurant patron and giving Moore in particular a gateway to audience interaction. English himself is planted onstage to provide live keyboard accompaniment, and briefly lends his voice in harmony.

The unusual structure of Five Course Love raises an interesting question: when a viewer spends most of the play unsure of how the scenes tie together, does an airtight conclusion wipe away his earlier uncertainty? I didn't adore the production as it unfolded, when it had me convinced it was one thing, but the ending so disarmed me that I was won over. Content to revel in pulpy, lowbrow entertainment before revealing the truth behind its madcap ways, the musical is a long, lusty joke with a promise of something sweeter.


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