Theater Review: “I Do! I Do!”— Predictable Musical Sentimentality

You leave the matrimonial musical I Do! I Do! humming its banalities.

I Do! I Do!. Book and Lyrics by Tom Jones. Music by Harvey Schmidt. Directed by Gus Kaikkonen. Staged by the Peterborough Players, Peterborough, New Hampshire, through July 15.

By Jim Kates

Real-life husband-and-wife duo Beverly and Kirby Ward play Michael and Agnes in the Peterborough Players production of I DO! I DO! Photo: Deb Porter Hayes.

For nearly half a century, I avoided I Do! I Do!, put off by the Up-With-People-ish title and the general description of the show—a two-person musical chronicling a marriage for 50 years—“A very private thing is done in a very public way.” And this in spite of its having been written by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, the same team who put together The Fantasticks, one of the theatrical touchstones of my youth. Now, with the responsibilities of a reviewer, the show finally caught up with me, in a Peterborough Players production starring the real-life husband and wife team of Beverly and Kirby Ward, directed by Gus Kaikkonen.

I found it pretty much as I’d expected, the story line and the rhymes of the songs equally predictable. My 18-year-old theater companion said, “It’s corny, but I liked it.” My mid-40s theater companion said, after having cringed through the saccharine opening numbers and the coy wedding-night scene, “It had its moments.”

And it does.The story skips like a hard-thrown, flat stone over the waters of life, touching here and there on the surface of Michael and Agnes’s marriage, not sinking in. This is hardly conducive to sustained drama. Moments take the place of movement. At one point or another, almost everyone in the audience will chuckle or wince with recognition of a familiar anecdote of married life.

Among the more delightful moments for the couple together are a barefoot soft-shoe number, “I Love My Wife”—you can’t get much softer shoe than that—and an equally difficult, barefoot Viennese waltz, “Someone Needs Me.” Another is a lively hoedown, “When the Kids Get Married,” all of these choreographed by Kirby Ward. A difficulty with the show as a whole is that there is no inherent reason why one of these should be a hoedown and another a waltz. The music is a hodgepodge of allusions and styles, from Rodgers and Hammerstein to Lerner and Loewe to Frank Loesser and beyond, a hodgepodge having little to do directly with the action on stage. In this variety, as in its unremitting and unironic sentimentality, it seems to be the polar opposite of The Fantasticks, which is distinguished by a unified drive, wit, and a sharp edge.

What happened? Both musicals are derived from European theater. I Do! I Do! actually has its own romantic provenance, drawn from a play, The Fourposter, written by Jan de Hartog, a Dutch author who was on the lam from the Gestapo. (A separate essay could be written—in fact I have written it—on the surrealist situation of anti-Nazi resisters, in hiding, writing straightforward pastoral and domestic sentiment.) The Fourposter was updated and Americanized by Jones, with Schmidt penning the music. Like The Fantasticks, it can be played simply, with a single piano accompaniment. (Marybeth Hallinan is the Peterborough pianist.)

Real-life husband-and-wife duo Beverly and Kirby Ward play Michael and Agnes in the Peterborough Players production of I DO! I DO! Photo: Deb Porter Hayes.

It’s an uphill job for Kirby Ward to make the husband Michael a likable character—the epitome of the old line, “Well, enough about me, let’s talk about you: What did you think of my last book?”—an increasingly successful, popular novelist as the years pass from 1915 to 1965. His wife Agnes (Beverly Ward) comes across far more sympathetically these days, a woman so much of her own time that she forgives her husband his stupidities and indiscretions, yet just about ready to read The Feminine Mystique. There’s not much life to the character other than bouncing off Michael, and Ms. Ward gets the most of those independent sparks. I wonder if the original 1960s audience found the couple more in balance than a twenty-first-century audience is likely to do. And the Kirbys are well married to their parts. In I Do! I Do!’s middle age, they are at their least cartoonish, far more convincing than in their bridal and Darby-and-Joan phases.

They sing well together, too. Ms. Ward has perhaps the more beautiful voice. Certainly, she has the best opportunity to show off her singing and dancing in the spectacular “Flaming Agnes”—another one of those moments—just after Mr. Ward gets to riff off Fred Astaire in “A Well Known Fact.” Both of them are betrayed, however (and I annoyed), by the completely unnecessary miking of their performance.

At the end of I Do! I Do!, you come out humming the banalities: “Marriage is a very good thing though it is far from easy.” In general, the Peterborough Players have yet to show in 2012 the imagination and flair of, say 2011’s Oh, Coward! They can do it; I wish they would.

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