Story: Newlyweds Michael and Agnes settle into their home after their wedding ceremony in 1895. They’re uncertain about their future but convinced that their love for each other will see them through the rough spots as well as being the rock on which their long-time happiness can prosper.
Through the next 50 years, the couple welcomes two children, weathers an affair and questions about their love for each other as well as seeing their son and daughter grow up and move away from their home, leaving them empty-nesters. Along the way Michael’s career as a novelist is successful, while Agnes yearns for more fulfillment than keeping house, with servants at that.
Can those wedding vows they took as an idealistic young pair survive the harsh and often monotonous realities of everyday life?
Highlights: Stages St. Louis returns to a show it performed in its very first year of existence (1987) by showcasing two different casts in this two-character musical written by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones of The Fantasticks fame.
Other Info: To help enliven this curio piece of a musical, Stages is utilizing alternating couples termed the “red cast” and “purple cast.” Steve Isom and Corinne Melancon comprise the “purple cast” while Kari Ely and David Schmittou make up the “red" version.
The alternating approach to casting allows audiences to compare, if they’d like, the performances of each duo while re-enacting this modest musical which is based on the play, The Fourposter, by Jan de Hartog. All of the action takes place on a single set, the bedroom of Michael and Agnes which features a four-poster bed at its center.
Schmidt composed the music and Jones wrote the book and lyrics for I Do! I Do!, as they did for The Fantasticks. The latter is the longest-running musical in history, having been performed off-Broadway continuously from 1960 until 2002. Schmidt passed away earlier this year at age 88, while Jones recently celebrated his 90th birthday.
Schmidt and Jones look for simple, universal themes to propel both musicals, but I Do! I Do! was considerably less successful, running on Broadway for 560 performances between 1966 and 1968. It originally was written for its initial stars, Mary Martin and Robert Preston, with Preston garnering a Tony Award.
Carol Lawrence and Gordon MacRae also portrayed the couple on Broadway, while Carol Burnett and Rock Hudson appeared in a national tour (Martin and Preston were in the first tour) and they also appeared in a production at The Muny in 1974.
The primary problem with I Do! I Do! is that it too often comes across as tired and sadly dated. Director Michael Hamilton smartly attempts to work around this challenge by infusing Stages’ production with four of the company’s most accomplished performers, which works well enough to a point. In fact, Stages’ version of I Do! I Do! is the best I’ve ever seen of a musical that nonetheless just seems tired too much of the time.
Jones’ story stretches credulity at several points. Agnes forgives Michael’s infidelity within the confines of two closely bridged songs, A Well-Known Fact and Flaming Agnes, in Act I, while in Act II Agnes’ serious reflection about her own self-identity and lack of love for her husband begins and ends ever so quickly in What Is a Woman?, albeit with Michael’s committed love to her helping cross those troubled waters.
I Do! I Do! too often seems quaint and alien, even considering its setting in the late 19th and early to mid-20th centuries. The Stages production does feature a handsome set designed by James Wolk which cleverly situates the setting on stage within ‘framed’ perimeters on either side and across the top, which is handsomely illuminated by Sean Savoie’s lighting design.
Costume designer Brad Musgrove is kept plenty busy with an assortment of lavish outfits representing the fashions of eras covering five decades for the affluent couple. Hamilton contributes effective and enjoyable choreography for the two characters, including a soft-shoe routine for the shoeless pair in their bedroom.
Lisa Campbell Albert provides the smart musical direction, which incorporates Stuart Elmore’s appealing orchestral design, and there’s even a little impromptu jam session when Agnes performs on violin while Michael dusts off his saxophone as they reminisce on a New Year's Eve.
Isom does a lot with a little in the role of Michael, culling laughs from the slender material with his physical humor as well as underscoring Michael’s penchant for self- importance when conversing with Melancon as Agnes. Schmittou’s interpretation makes Michael less ostentatious but not really as humorous. Both portrayals bring something positive to the role, albeit in different fashions, which doubtless was the hoped-for result.
Similarly, Melancon and Ely offer two subtly varied interpretations of the antiquated character of Agnes. Ely finds considerable humor in the part while also bringing the romantic elements of her role to the fore when there is opportunity, while Melancon works to show Agnes’ occasionally defiant spirit.
All four performers were featured in Stages’ hilarious rendition of The Drowsy Chaperone in 2016 and in High Society in 2000, as well as countless shows on their own throughout Stages’ history. Here they share a wistful view of marriage as it may or may not have been like a century ago.
Musical: I Do! I Do!
Company: Stages St. Louis
Venue: Reim Theatre, Kirkwood Civic Center, 111 South Geyer Road
Dates: Through July 1
Tickets: $25-$63; contact 821-2407 or stagesstlouis.org
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Peter Wochniak