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But They Didn't 

by Michael Bowen


They didn't. Did they, really? I Do! I Do! (at the Civic through June 12) is a sentimental journey through a 50-year marriage. (Some call it a cheesy romp. I do!) Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, who wrote this 1966 musical, intended it to be all pleasant and tuneful and comfy.


So why were the opening-night spectators shouting down one of the performers?


As Michael, the husband in this two-character show, Thomas Heppler was unburdening himself of his complaints against his middle-aged wife Agnes (played by Jan Neumann). He had just announced his opinion that women, when they approach their "matron station / Begin a certain process of deterioration" -- this, just after he'd revealed, with satisfaction, that he was in the middle of having an affair.


The audience -- the women mostly, but not entirely -- hollered and booed, discombobulating poor Heppler, who had to find his bearings and soldier on.


The show had just admitted, in effect, how stale, sexist and out of touch it is. But just when we'd touched a nerve, it was time to cut short the interesting stuff and get back to what we came here for: getting a little weepy. How 'bout another musical number, kids?


Michael is condescending, patriarchal, utterly inattentive to domestic life, vain about his work and complacent about the obviousness of his superiority to any little wife of his.


As for Agnes, she spends too much, and sometimes she doesn't massage her hubby's male ego quite enough, and she admits to being infatuated with a young poet, and -- did I mention she spends too much? (Meanwhile, Michael actually gets to have his little affair, not just think about it.)


But it's a different world out there now, Tom and Harvey: Everyone -- not just women -- can be irresponsible with money. Everyone -- not just men -- can be overly devoted to a career. Everyone is supposed to share when it comes to changing the diapers.


Oh, the songs in I Do! are pleasant enough. We sit and think, "How pleasant that things were like that once," when they weren't actually like that then and certainly aren't like that now. Nice thought, though. Glad to have my misconceptions reaffirmed.





And if the critic would please get past his prejudices and tell me how this show was, even if it's not his particular cup of tea? Well, it's a cup of tea that needs to steep a little longer.


It's established pretty early that we're going to slog through all 50 years of this marriage no matter how many unmemorable tunes it takes. The episodes aren't as universal as they'd like to think; they're just stereotyped.


No one expects the second coming of Robert Preston (The Music Man), who created this role on Broadway, but Heppler doesn't have the panache for gloating. In "I Love My Wife" (after the wedding night) and "It's a Well-Known Fact" (the middle-aged man who's growing tired of his wife -- and alienating audiences in the process), Heppler needs to convey sexual arrogance and complacency; it doesn't come through. He needs to display some carefree abandon; instead, he's an actor going through his dance steps.


Heppler's best moment came during the seething frustration of "The Father of the Bride," when Michael sings, "My daughter is marrying an idiot," sings Michael, "the stupidest of men." He's also convincing in the later stages, when his character is making up for past offenses and demonstrating his enduring love.


Indeed, the whole show improves in the second half, as the characters age, approaching and then venturing past Heppler and Neumann's own age bracket. (It's easier enacting the irascible codger than the callow youth.) Onstage pianists Carol Miyamoto and Beverly Rhodes had flattened some notes and been out of synch at times early on, but they provided a nicely varied entr'acte just after intermission.


Neumann shines in "Flaming Agnes," a would-be divorcee's fantasy of just how risqu & eacute; she'll be once she frees herself from the marriage shackles. She capitalizes on the song's comic opportunities -- a big woman doing those shimmy-shake-and-hootchie-koo moves -- and the spectacle breathes life into the proceedings. Another of Neumann's best numbers is "What Is a Woman?": She may be getting older, the nest may be empty, but she still has things to accomplish. When Neumann asserts that for a woman, being lonely "doesn't mean she is only alive when in love," she sells the song and sounds great selling it.


Together, the two singers perform well, whether at the altar ("Together Forever") or bickering ("Nobody's Perfect"). "My Cup Runneth Over," the pop duet about enduring love, was sung simply and beautifully, with Heppler and Neumann hugging in bed, smiling at all the obstacles they'd overcome together. It was the evening's highlight, over too soon and oddly underemphasized.


Director Troy Nickerson, though, jazzes up "When the Kids Get Married" with some snappy vaudeville choreography. Peter Hardie's set, with its makeup tables and dressing screens in a variety of styles -- Egyptian, Art Deco, Impressionist, abstract -- contributes to the sense of time marching by while maintaining an improvised "Let's put on a show" atmosphere.


The costumes, by Susan Berger and Lisa Caryl, convey 1920s elegance for the exuberant times and gray '40s drabness for the couple's elder years.


But in general, I Do! I Do! is a show that's quaint -- in 1898, wedding nights apparently involved virgins -- and predictable.


It's a show that doubles your pleasure with double the exclamation marks. Isn't that swell?





Publication date: 5/20/04

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