BWW Review: Decades of marital bliss fly by in 'I DO! I DO!' at Stages St. Louis
At home in the Robert Reim Theater in Kirkwood (the most comfortable, audience-friendly theater in the St. Louis area) they come close to selling out their entire capacity with subscriptions each year. They have thousands of very faithful patrons. And they have done all the big, popular musicals.
But "I DO! I DO!" is a most unusual musical. It has no dancing girls, no trios or quartets, no chorus, no big finale. It has a cast of only two. It portrays the joys and struggles of a couple spending their lives together in a very traditional marriage--from 1890 to around 1940. Stages St. Louis has opened this sweet old memento by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt. It runs through July 1. (This is the second time Stages has produced this show. "I DO! I DO!" was one of three shows they did in their very first season back in '87.)
This musical is based on The Fourposter, a 1951 play by Jan De Hartog. The play, with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, won the Tony for "Best Play". Jones and Schmidt's musical version, with Robert Preston and Mary Martin, opened on Broadway in 1966 and ran for 560 performances. It was nominated for seven Tony awards. (Preston won Best Actor in a Musical.) Carol Lawrence and Gordon MacRea later took over the roles and toured the show. Still later Carol Burnett and Rock Hudson toured "I DO! I DO!" --and they played it at St. Louis' great outdoor theater, the Muny, in 1974. The show is a magnet for major talent.
In the Stages St. Louis production the roles of Michael and Agnes are double-cast: on alternate evenings they are played by David Schmittou and Kari Ely or by Steve Isom and Corinne Melançon. (This review addresses a Schmittou/Ely performance.) Considering that the two stars are virtually on stage all the time--and singing all the time--the double-casting is understandable and considerate. And who knows? You might want to see the work of both casts.
Both of the stars I saw are long-time veterans of Stages St. Louis. This is Schmittou's 17th season while Miss Ely is appearing in her 26th season. I had the pleasure of watching her play Hope Harcourt, the romantic ingénue in Anything Goes, at Stages just 26 years ago and I think nary a woman has matured more gracefully. Schmittou I first saw 16 years ago in Sweet Charity. He retains that boyish honesty that made him so appealing then.
The story takes place in a single setting--the bedroom of Agnes and Michael. We follow them from their wedding day through the births of children, quarrels and reconciliations, even a bit of mid-life infidelity. We watch them deal with children's marriages. We feel Agnes' empty-nest anomie when that younger child leaves home. The passage through these decades is done deftly, swiftly. Costumes and hair styles are changed almost instantly. In the final moments we literally watch them age as they both sit at dressing tables and put on the grayest of wigs.
The set, by designer James Wolk, is quite gorgeous. Walls, left and right, with gracefully curved tops. A beautiful old fourposter bed dominates the center of the room; it glides upstage a few times to allow a lovely stained-glass window to descend. The bed can rotate in a romantic whirl. The entire proscenium is a gilt Victorian picture frame. Set colors are all warm, rosy romantic hues. Lighting by Sean Savoie complements the set with rich, deep purples and blues. Follow spots are impeccably employed. Costumes, by Brad Musgrove, are attractive and period-appropriate. Agnes has some stunningly elegant gowns. (She does, however, wear one outfit ['20's or '30's?] that is simply bizarre.) And at one point Agnes surprises us with a sort of "revenge" hat--a stupendously huge, ornately feathered extravaganza!
The apparent simplicity of the story is belied by a number of deft technical details: a clothesline full of baby laundry magically sweeps across the stage, visible pregnancies suddenly appear then disappear. In the middle of one song Agnes and Michael reach under the bed to pull out a saxophone and a violin--and proceed to play them creditably! (Is this some trick to give this very mild story a subliminal edgy bit of "sax and violins"?)
The music is pleasant and charming, with a hint or two of echoes from Schmidt and Jones' one smash hit, The Fantasticks. There are comic songs, romantic songs, angry songs, silly songs, sentimenal songs--and they're all sung ably, even beautifully (though Schmittou stretches his range a little to hit those lowest notes). But there's nothing memorable. Nothing you'll walk out whistling. No "Try to Remember". And the lyrics are not quite so clever as they might have been.
Director Michael Hamilton does not neglect dancing. He choreographed the show too. There's some ballroom, some soft-shoe--all very nicely done. But these actors are not young chorus gypsies--and they bear the burden of the entire show--so the choreography is not athletic. No Bob Fosse stuff.
"I DO! I DO!" is (despite the exclamation points) a very, very mild show. It wants to be a kind of musical Our Town focusing on just the marriage relationship. But the book is pretty shallow. There is cliché. Some of the couples' arguments are quite petty. Even Michael's infidelity and Agnes' reaction to it are simplistically drawn. Michael has always been a little self-absorbed and clueless, but when he sings to Agnes about how men and women age differently--"after 40 men go to town . . . and women go to pot"--he is simply an insensitive lout. How can David Schmittou, who surely has made a career out of being a nice guy, sing such stuff? And how can Kari Ely sing the outlandish rage of her "Flaming Agnes" aria? This stereotyped wifely reaction to infidelity requires a Carol Burnett for it to be funny. Miss Ely's strength is not low comedy but light comedy and elegant romance.
Time and again Agnes and Michael flare with anger--only to be instantly, inexplicably reconciled. How can this happen? It can happen--all the script's shortcomings can be washed away--only if the couple has a deeply shared sense of humor about life that links them inseparably.
Nevertheless I DO! I DO! is a rather charming evening of musical theater. It continues at Stages St. Louis through July 1. More traditional--and more exciting shows follow soon: Mamma Mia!, Oklahoma!, and Madagascar.