Review: 'I Do, I Do!' at Theatreworks New Milford
Based on Jan de Hartog's play "The Fourposter," "I Do! I Do!" is a rare two-character musical. It follows the ups and downs of a marriage over a fifty-year period beginning in 1898. A virtue of the production that opened Friday night at TheatreWorks New Milford is that both Jonathan Jacobson and Carey Van Hollen could be of that era. You believe you're watching a man and a woman living in the first half of the twentieth century.
The success of this illusion can be attributed in part to the actors' innate physical characteristics, which tend to trigger false suppositions about their off-stage or real-life personalities. In truth, their talent as performers is mostly responsible, along with the efforts of their TheatreWorks collaborators starting with director Bradford Blake. Lastly, we must credit playwright de Hartog and the duo that fashioned his work into "I Do! I Do!" — composer Harvey Schmidt and lyricist and book writer Tom Jones. Jones and Schmidt created "The Fantasticks", which began its record-breaking run in 1960, six years before "I Do! I Do!" premiered on the Great White Way starring Robert Preston and Mary Martin.
The verisimilitude achieved by Jacobson, Van Hollen, ET. Al. has a major downside however. It heightens the probability that audience members, like me, will find the show passé. That doesn't mean it's devoid of all relevance and resonance, or that there aren't pleasures to found in the musical's "simple beauty," as director Blake aptly describes it in his program note. Yet its relative mustiness comes as a surprise and a disappointment.
I got the sense the material was being shown too much respect. Sure, there are copyright and permission issues to consider. But I kept wondering whether TheatreWorks (named the "Best Small Theater in Connecticut 2017" by Connecticut Magazine) was reluctant to update or reinterpret "I Do! I Do!" because it might somehow alienate its subscriber base, which presumably skews older. If so, the strategy backfires. Along with lessening the show's chances of appealing to younger theatergoers, it raises a nagging question: What would a more modern, contemporary version of "I Do! I Do!" be like?
As it is, the musical considers the union of Michael, a writer of romance novels, and Agnes, a stay-at-home mom, whom we meet on their wedding night. Michael's self-centeredness and vanity fuels his mildly chauvinistic treatment of his Agnes, who is adept at retaliating with a pointed remark that will undermine his confidence. By turns, husband and wife bicker and complain, mollify and support one another. The terms they use often sound archaic and/or quaint — such as when they refer to "the servants" or make oblique mention of their sex life.
Michael instigates the major crisis of Act One, twelve years and two children into the marriage.
Then in Act Two, with the kids having flown the nest, Agnes shakes things up with her own stark revelation, "I can't die behind the stove like a domestic animal." This occasions Van Hollen's moving delivery of a song entitled "What Is A Woman?"
Alas, it's not clear anyone in the show's universe is actually listening. Both conflicts are resolved a little too quickly, even for a musical comedy. Yes, "I Do! I Do!" is a comedy. There's plenty of humor mixed in with the harsher glimpses of love and matrimony American style. And of course, there's the music. Vocally well-matched, Van Hollen and Jacobson sing ditties accompanied by two pianists, Charles Smith (also credited as music director) and Anna Demasi, who are perched in a loft behind the audience inside TheatreWorks' small house, and whose playing is superb.
Jacobson has a good face for comedy — handsome yet elastic features, including large, expressive eyes. His singing style is clean and stress-free. That said, the score make more demands on Agnes. Wearing a different red wig in each act, both decidedly of their period, Van Hollen plays the role well, although her voice tends to quaver when she's reaching to hit her high notes.
There were a few minor hiccups in the staging, basically amounting to pregnant pauses while the actors were off-stage, no doubt hurrying to make costume changes. And several times the mechanism used to rotate a set wall and reveal the fourposter inside the couple's bedroom where the bulk of the action takes place had trouble turning a full 180 degrees. In general, the set feels confining and claustrophobic. Maybe that's by design, but the two actors often appear in need of more elbowroom — more physical rather than emotional space — to carry out the blocking and choreography Blake has devised.
The fidelity to "I Do! I Do!" this production evinces is to be admired. It puts the show's wistfulness and nostalgia in vivid relief. Unfortunately, it also comes off as out-of-touch, too far removed from contemporary life because it expresses longing for a time when joy and self-expression weren't as highly valued as they are now — both inside marriage and within society at large. Not that everything about the institution of marriage is better today. To each his own connubial (and theatrical) bliss, I suppose. There's no such thing as a perfect union, a perfect way to love, or a perfect way to create and interpret art.