You have to hand it to Jack Marshall. While his company, American Century Theater, values works from the past, Marshall has dusted off a charming musical about traditional marriage from the 60’s and re-interpreted it for what he calls ” a post-DOMA America”.
Does the concept work for the show subtitled “a musical about a marriage?”
In short: yes.
As it was written, I Do! I Do! follows Michael and Agnes from their pre-wedding jitters to the golden years of their marriage 50 years later. Based on Jan de Hartog’s play The Fourposter, this third major collaboration of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt (following The Fantasticks and 110 in the Shade) premiered in 1966.
Jones’ book presented a paint-by-numbers approach to marriage that was generalized, rather than universal. “Him” is chauvinistic and needy; “Her” is flighty and couldn’t handle money. He has an affair; she moves out; they reconcile; she resents his career. It could have been “I Love Lucy” with songs. It’s a miracle there was not a mother-in-law joke wedged into the book somewhere.
Marriage, as seen in the quaint musical, meant a husband, a wife, and a couple of kids. Throw in the baseball and apple pie and it’s an American dream realized. For some people, this idea of marriage was business as usual. Gay and lesbian Americans, however, were not afforded the same consideration; for them, marriage equality was not a cup that runneth over.
For some, the Michael-Agnes version of marriage has been so worth preserving, they used money and influence to pass laws to rigidly define the institution of marriage. California’s Proposition 8, passed in 2008, and the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) from 1996 became touchstones for the same-sex marriage debate. In Maryland and Washington, DC, as well as 11 other states, same-sex couples can marry. (Minnesota and Rhode Island’s laws are effective as of August 1.) Virginia, where I Do! I Do! is running, is one of 35 states where such marriages are banned.
This summer, during the last week of June, the Supreme Court of the United States changed the game. On June 26, the highest court in the land turned away defenders of Prop 8, allowing same-sex marriages to resume in California. During the same landmark session, SCOTUS also ruled it was unconstitutional to deny legally married same-sex couples federal benefits. In that one-two punch, the legal definition of marriage took on a whole new meaning.
Now enter Jack Marshall and his post-DOMA I Do! I Do! Not content with presenting just another revival of the 47-year old musical, Marshall takes the original husband and wife and doubles the cast. Gone are Michael and Agnes and in their place Leslie and Chris, each played by two actors.
Marshall uses his expanded cast like a Rubik’s Cube, clicking effortlessly from one permutation to the other throughout the two-hour condensation of a 50-year alliance.
The opening scene introduces the female-female couple, Mary Beth Luckenbaugh and Esther Covington. Their nervous delight and anticipation of a lifetime together are believable and segue into the jaunty title song, engagingly performed by Chris (Luckenbaugh) and Leslie (Covington).
With a twist of the cube, Steve Lebens enters as Leslie, the more traditional coupling. The cube twists again and Chad Fornwalt steps in as spouse Chris, the male-male couple.
Rip Claassen’s modern, simple costumes assist in the universal look of the production. Hand-props and moving set pieces are stripped away, leaving the open, checkerboard scenic design executed by Patrick Lord. The setting is enhanced by David Walden’s lighting, and by the collection of wedding portraits that look down on Chris and Leslie’s life together. The photos offer a silent benediction for all marriages; a subtle, yet effective message.
Within the open setting, Marshall’s performers easily enter and exit, creating a fluidity of movement and clear realization of the concept that marriage is marriage and love is love.
As singers, the four performers do well by the Jones and Schmidt score, especially when they harmonize together. As individuals, highlights abound, such as Luckenbaugh having a fiery good time with “Flaming Agnes,” and the poignant “What is a Woman/Man?” which becomes a duet with Fornwalt. Celebrating the exhilaration and hard work of raising children, “Love Isn’t Everything” morphs from female-female parents to the two males (with a quick reference to a birth-mother) and loses nothing in translation. When Chris and Leslie’s argument evolves into the comically tense list of injustices, Fornwalt and Lebens have a field day one-upping each other in “Nobody’s Perfect.” When it’s time for one of the parents to rail against the man their daughter will marry, Fornwalt offers a biting “Father of the Bride.”
Marshall’s strongly realized concept succeeds in mining the universality of marriage from what used to be an old-fashioned little musical about a husband and wife. Michael/Leslie and Agnes/Chris sing in the last moments of the musical, “Marriage is a very good thing, though it’s far from easy.” As the marriage-equality debate continues to ebb and flow throughout the United States, that lyric takes on a whole new meaning.
I Do! I Do! . Book and Lyrics by Tom Jones. Music by Harvey Schmidt. Based on “The Fourposter” by Jan de Hartog. Directed by Jack Marshall. Musical Director: Tom Fuller. Featuring Mary Beth Luckenbaugh, Esther Covington, Steve Lebens, and Chad Fornwalt. Scenic Designer: Patrick Lord. Costume Designer: Rip Classen. Lighting Designer: David Walden. Sound Designer: Ed Moser. Choreography: Mary Beth Luckenbaugh and Esther Covington.
Produced by The American Century Theater. Reviewed by Jeff Walker.