I did. I did.
Look forward to the revival of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s 1966 musical “I Do! I Do!” now playing at the Westport Country Playhouse through August 28, that is. It’s a perfectly adequate production of the show under Susan H. Schulman’s direction, which supposedly incorporates some new material from the authors. And though it was a major hit on Broadway, running for several years, and popped up in various regional and summer theater productions, I was frankly underwhelmed.
No, this story of the 50-year marriage of what appears to be a midwestern couple from 1898 forward didn’t blow me away. It is certainly pleasant to look at, the leads are extraordinarily talented, especially Kate Baldwin, and two piano score, if undistinguished, shows some power, range and depth in the second act. But its ultimately too small to fill a large stage, even one as small as the one in Westport.
Though “I Do! I Do!” was envisioned as a two-character musical from the start (based on Jan de Hartog’s play “The Fourposter,” which was also a two hander and covered 25 years in a marriage), it was written specifically for the larger than life talents of Robert Preston and Mary Martin who were early on signed to play the couple, Agnes and Michael. Now those two personalities could fill up a Broadway theater with their talent and make an audience feel fulfilled. And when the show was remounted in California and went out on tour, the likes of Carol Burnett and Rock Hudson were cast in the leads, equally popular talents who commanded the audience’s respect and attention.
One can imagine the charm of seeing Mary Martin managing multiple maternity get ups from the turn of the last century, or Preston projecting a naïve yet cocky manhood as he changes into pajamas for his wedding night, complete with a night hat. Or the preciousness of seeing Burnett catch Hudson in a series of extramarital lies–we look forward to the sparring and jousting of two celebrities in their prime.
But can “I Do! I Do!” work with mere mortals in the cast? It’s a mixed verdict at Westport, since Agnes has been cast with a mortal in the process of heavenly transcendence. The aforementioned Kate Baldwin, that is, who demonstrated last year on Broadway that she could steal the revival of Finian’s Rainbow out from under the hunky Cheyenne Jackson, the spirited Christopher Fitzgerald and the beloved Irish actor Jim Norton, netting a Tony award nomination in the process. Here she gives her all and then some to the role of Agnes, from her initial trepidations on her wedding morning to those moments 40 or 50 years later when she realizes that has missed out on opportunities to discover herself instead of settling for the role of wife and mother.
Baldwin’s voice is strong and clear throughout, matched by her acting, which together serves to anchor the evening with a person for whom one can care. Her powerful “What Is a Woman” is a dramatic highlight of her character’s dawning self-realization, but she also demonstrates some good comedic talents as well, in the biting “Nobody’s Perfect,” a counterpoint song in which each partner offers to bring up just a few of each other’s shortcomings, and “Flaming Agnes,” how she is going to start her life over once she has discovered her husband has strayed.
Lewis Cleale, an amiable actor and fine singer, plays Michael as a caricature of those men seen in ads in early editions of the Saturday Evening Post or in Normal Rockwell paintings, self-absorbed husbands and fathers who don’t have a clue as to how make a marriage a success, other than to stick closely to society’s prescribed roles and ignore the feelings of those closest to you. As a result, it’s hard to admire or respect Michael, especially after he strays from the relationship, especially when Agnes’s major fault is identified as her inability to stop spending money. In an old fashioned sexist relationship, I guess Agnes’s actions would justify’s Michael’s response–after all, it’s all his property, including Agnes.
That’s probably one of the major problems with the show: its idealized portrait of marriage is as unfathomable to a contemporary audience as the clothing and accessories these characters wear. Women don’t vote until 20+ years into the relationship and being able to effectively confront male arrogance is yet another quarter century away after the musical ends. In this idealized vision, the real world very seldom interrupts. The time period covers two world wars and neither Michael or his son, Mikey, get called up. The country goes through a major depression, an unprecedented flu epidemic, fascism and totalitariansim begins to increase around the globe, but not even these issues catch the eye of our main couple. Michael is supposed to be a famous, wealthy writer of romantic novels, which is itself kind of perplexing since he is depicted as not the most attentive or aware husband around. His works seem to bear as much resemblance to reality as “I Do! I Do!” does.
These flaws stick out more because they don’t have a Burnett or a Preston to hide behind. They rise to the surface and share stage time with the actors, who indeed are trying very hard to make a successful evening out of the play. Schulman does try some staging tricks that generate interest, by working with set designer Wilson Chin to place the four-poster bed in the center of the stage beneath a barest outline of a roof, moving and turning the bed to denote change of scene or a jump forward in time. Devon Painter’s costumes do a decent job of telegraphing the various eras covered by the play. I just wish that Schulman had allowed her cast to do more if not all of their costume changes directly in front of the audience, as they do once at the beginning and again toward the end. Those were both effective moments and would have had a place elsewhere in the show.
Michael Lichtefeld’s choreography provides some movement for Michael and Agnes . Unfortunately, the steps are very old -fashioned musical comedy style moves such as some back and forth kicklines, a hint of a Charleston, or the briefest of waltzes. Annoyingly, the dances for the most part do not grow integrally or naturally out of the scene but seem added on to accommodate certain lengthy musical sequences that are included without dialogue or singing.
The second act fares better than the first in part because Jones and Schmidt’s score takes on a slightly darker, more rueful quality, as the characters begin to feel their age and are suddenly presented with unexpected changes. “My Cup Runneth Over” has enjoyed time on the hit parade and is occasionally even heard today at wedding and anniversary events. “Where are the Snows” has also found some popularity as well, as regretful reminders of lost youth and life quickly passing by. And “When the Kids Get Married,” is no doubt an identifiable anthem for parents–probably even more today as the recession has changed some traditional living patterns–heartily anticipate what freedoms they will enjoy once their kids finally leave home into relationships of their own. One can no doubt imagine audiences back in the 60’s eating up the vision of Martin and Preston or Burnett and Hudson picking up a violin and saxophone and screeching away as part of this number. The humor and irony was that here were celebrities, used to having everything made perfect for them on film or TV, actually attempting to do something they had never done before.
That’s what separates this production from the initial Broadway and touring versions. There is not enough substance here to deserve even a chamber music version, no matter how much heart, effort and energy Kate Baldwin puts into it. It’s essentially a star vehicle that without the stars tends to sputter and lose its way. The audience on the night I attended were certainly getting restless: there was a ridiculous amount of texting and time checking going on with cellphones and all sorts of objects–soda cans, purses and shoes–were dropping on the floor during the last ten minutes of the show. Were these people falling asleep and objects falling out of their hands or did they throw their shoes down to slip their feet into them to prepare for the end of the show. Then there were the people who for a few moments sounded like they were tap dancing–or maybe they were merely playing footsie–in one of the rows behind me.
I did I did so much want to like this production much more than I actually did. I am grateful for the opportunity to see it mounted at last, but there’s just a flimsy show with a predictable story here. To alter the lyrics of one song, “Where are the stars?”
- “I Do! I Do!” runs at the Westport Country Playhouse through August 28. For tickets and information on performance times, call the box office at 203.227.4177 or visit www.westportplayhouse.org