The Moments That Make Up A Marriage

By Geary Danihy

In the era of “Desperate Housewives” and weekly celebrity “mea culpas,” a musical such as “I do! I do!,” which recently opened at the Westport Country Playhouse, would appear to be about people from a different planet, inhabitants of a world in which the slow evolution and maturation of a marriage is the norm rather than the exception. Thus, to enjoy this low-key love letter to the marital state requires a certain shifting of our mental gears. Not only must cell phones and blackberries be turned off, but there must also be a quelling of our hunger for the continuous titillation offered by the media gossip mills that we consume as eagerly and as guiltily as fast food, for “I do! I do!” is a sumptuous, multi-course meal that demands we take the time to savor each course.

Based on the 1940s play “The Four Poster” by Jan de Hartog, “I do! I do!,” with book and lyrics by Tom Jones and music by Harvey Schmidt, opened on Broadway in 1966 with Mary Martin and Robert Preston as the married couple. As noted in the Playhouse’s playbill, it was “the smallest musical ever produced on Broadway.” It might also be said that it was one of the most intimate musicals ever produced on Broadway, and that intimacy is admirably maintained in this current production, which has been directed with a steady and caring hand by Susan Schulman.

The set, by Wilson Chin, is simplicity itself – two small sitting areas stage left and right, with a large four-poster bed dominating center stage, and the “orchestra” consists of just two pianos played by Alexander Boroson and Joel Fran. Thus, there is nothing to distract the audience’s attention from the marriage that slowly unfolds before its eyes as Agnes (Kate Baldwin) and Michael (Lewis Cleale) marry in 1898 and then work out the details of their marriage over the next 50 years.

There are no big production numbers, no chorus lines stomping for attention, just two wonderful actors going about the business of creating a husband and a wife who over the course of the evening become more real than some of the married couples we know in real life. Cleale does an admirable job as Michael, a man who after his wedding night is so taken by the experience that he breaks out into song with “I Love My Wife.” As the evening progresses, Cleale subtly deepens his portrayal of Michael, allowing us to see how the “role” of the husband gradually changes as the decades change and he learns how to live with and love his wife.

However, it is the lithe and lovely Baldwin, last seen on Broadway as Sharon McLonergan in “Finian’s Rainbow,” who truly captures the audience’s eyes and heart. At times seeming almost larger than life, Baldwin moves about the stage with such assurance that you might almost believe she is in her own bedroom rather than up on stage. Her delivery of lines is dead-on and the range of emotions she presents is both impressive and totally believable – when delighted, joy lights up her face; when disappointed, her loss is palpable.

This is, all in all, a quiet, gentle musical, with numbers that caress the ear rather than assault it. That’s not to say the production lacks verve and spirit – “Nobody’s Perfect,” “Flaming Agnes” and “When the Kids Get Married” all bounce along nicely, but it is the show’s most memorable song, “My Cup Runneth Over,” that capture’s the production’s spirit and tone, for it is a touching, heartfelt profession of the enduring nature of a love that feeds and grows on the small, everyday crumbs and scraps of life – the “small things you do constantly.”
           
In an age of in-your-face musicals that either let it all hang out or pander to audiences by offering up canned emotions and cookie-cutter scores, it is refreshing to see how witty dialogue, deft character development and understated music can come together in the hands of two very capable actors to create a very satisfying evening of theater.
           
“I do! I do!” runs through Saturday, Sep. 4. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org.
           

 


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