Theater critic: “Yes!” I Do! », ArtisTree Musical Theater Festival | Theater | Seven days
A bed takes center stage ArtistTree The production of the Musical Theater Festival of I do! I do! With a floral quilt and ornately carved wooden frame, it ties together a stately master bedroom, drawing attention throughout the two-person musical. The dominant and versatile decor remains a constant because the characters of Agnès (Lyn Philistine) and Michael (Christopher Sutton) live 50 years of marriage. It’s a place to come together, live out fantasies, dance, break down and find stability.
Directed by Gary John LaRosa, the 1966 musical comes to life at the Grange Theater in South Pomfret. The 90-seat performance hall offers a warm atmosphere and places the audience exceptionally close to the action.
Written by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, masterminds of The Fantastic, I do! I do! is unconventional in some remarkable ways. Its two-person cast went against the trend of large ensembles of the time, as seen in Hello Dolly! and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
I do! I do! also satirizes love and marriage with a much softer twist than those popular shows. It empathically examines marital norms, infidelity, loneliness and companionship through two acts jam-packed with catchy musical numbers.
We meet Agnes and Michael as hopeful engaged couples on the eve of their nuptials. Impatient and naive, the couple dive headlong into marriage, unaware of what it takes to stay together for the long haul.
At the top of Act 1, Agnes and Michael don’t know each other very well, as was normal at the turn of the 20th century when the show takes place. Neither have much experience with love or sex, but they are enthusiastically embracing their new life together. On their wedding night, Michael’s simple act of taking off Agnes’ shoe and caressing her foot is a tender and charged moment. The intimate gesture breaks the ice and their partnership begins in earnest.
Soon, Agnès is pregnant. But after eight months, Michael is the weakened one, not the engorged and heavy Agnes. He lies in bed with pains of sympathy, unaware of his wife’s very real discomfort. This is our first glimpse of Michael’s selfishness and complacency, a trait that becomes more prominent as he gains success as a novelist.
Agnes gives birth to a son and a daughter in quick succession, while growing bitter in response to Michael’s neglect. They clash with a litany of grievances. The conflict reaches a boiling point when Michael reveals he had an affair. Although she considers leaving him, Agnès decides to stay – for now.
Act 2 finds Agnes and Michael still together, seemingly healed from the strain of Michael’s affair. Their children are older and cause trouble for their parents who are reluctant to see them grow up. Soon, the children come of age and marry, much to the disappointment of their parents.
As empty nests, Agnès and Michael ponder what awaits them. Without children to keep them together, will they find reasons to stay? As each examines what it means to be self-sufficient and dependent on the other, they discover that love is worth fighting for.
Philistine and Sutton, a real married couple, deliver energetic and engaging performances that never waver. Both members of the Actors’ Equity Association, they have a chemistry that drives comedic numbers as much as tender moments. With brilliant physique, they go through times that are both joyful and dark, brandishing facial expressions that use every muscle.
Each has an excellent voice perfectly suited to the sumptuous musical style of I do! I do! Accompanied by a modest orchestra in a distant pit performing in a nearby barn, Philistine and Sutton take fluid ballads from song to song. They revel in as much peppy numbers full of catchy lyrics and witty barbs as they do anthemic torchlight songs steeped in emotion.
Although the show is set between 1898 and 1948, little in the script associates it with that time. A modernized ensemble and wardrobe would not be anachronistic. Nonetheless, set designer Christian Kohn roots the show in the not-too-distant past, adorning the master bedroom with antique armchairs, books, crystal decanters, perfume bottles and other bric-a-brac.
The walls of the room are adorned with an elaborate pattern of gold leaf on a dark red base that recalls emotional fervor and humanity. After all, the blood rushes to the cheeks after a first kiss and, uh, gives rise to passion.
La Rosa, who also choreographed the show, makes good use of the small space, leaving about 40 square feet at the edge of the stage for her actors to dance in a soft shoe or two.
Lighting designer Curtis Shields captures a life lived at all hours. Two gas sconces pulsate on opposite sides of the set. Morning sun and moonlight splash throughout through a fourth wall full of imaginary windows.
In terms of clothing, the looks of the characters range from just lifted to dressed for a cocktail. Costume designers Michael Bottari and Ronald Case put together period looks that change as the story progresses through the early to mid-20th century. The couple’s sleepwear says as much about the era as any of the ensembles. On their wedding night, Michael wears a very unsexy Ebenezer Scrooge-style cotton nightgown, Agnes a drab nightgown. Decades later, the two have moved on to silky pajamas.
Some may assume that ArtisTree chose a wedding story to edit the weeks before and after Valentine’s Day, but in fact, the show was originally scheduled for September 2020. The reason for its postponement should be obvious.
Given the inescapable scrutiny of love, sex and relationships that hits every year in mid-February, I do! I do! comes just when people are most likely to reflect on their own relationships. More than a fun diversion, the musical offers couples and singles a timely examination of love and what it takes to keep it going.