By Lynn Venhaus
Love and marriage are the sole focus of “I Do! I Do!,” and local luminaries Kari Ely and David Schmittou go together well in Stages St. Louis’ crowd-pleasing production.
In a departure this 32nd season, two sets of performers alternate the demanding roles for the intimate two-person show. Ely and Schmittou are the “red cast” and Steve Isom and Corinne Melancon are the “purple cast” for 27 days. You’ll be entertained no matter which veteran star couple you see as Michael and Agnes.
The winsome Ely, with her warm smile and emotional range, and the suave Schmittou, effortless in timing and projecting the temperature of the room, capably carry this relatable – but outdated – time-capsule musical through 50 years of married life, from 1895 to 1945.
This is Ely’s 50th show in her 26th season at Stages, and Schmittou has been in 17 seasons since 2000. They were last seen performing together in the delightful musical comedy “It Shoulda Been You” two summers ago.
Their likability and sheer force of personality overcomes the creakiest parts of the script, and they gloss over the show’s glaring missteps. This is hindsight after comparing the show from its 1960s roots to today.
The 1966 musical, a star vehicle for Broadway titans Mary Martin and Robert Preston, was based on “The Four Poster” by Jan De Hartog, and originally produced by St. Louis native and legendary impresario David Merrick and originally directed by superstar Gower Champion.
Composer Harvey Schmidt and lyricist/book writer Tom Jones, famous for the longest-running off-Broadway musical “The Fantasticks!”, received much goodwill after that smash success.
Their sweet melodies are evident in “Together Forever” and “When the Kids Get Married,” and they’re uncommonly frank in “Love Isn’t Everything,” “The Honeymoon is Over” and “Where Are the Snows,” honestly capturing the triumphs and challenges of staying in love, home life, and aging together.
Singer Ed Ames had a big hit with the show’s signature song, “My Cup Runneth Over,” which was sung at many weddings during that era.
The self-absorbed husband is often portrayed as a pompous jerk, and not really quaint or cute, the way it might have been, say when Carol Burnett and Rock Hudson performed the show at The Muny in 1974, their national tour, or even the 1982 TV version with Lee Remick and Hal Linden.
In “Time’s Up” 21st Century America, Michael’s callous treatment of Agnes would be vilified. The affair storyline is crucial for a tone shift, but how its solved is never revealed, only they remain together and marry off their children.
Agnes’ growing desire for self-worth and independence, after a lifetime as a wife and mother, is mentioned but never resolved. As an old and gray senior duo, they downsize, and life goes on in a new chapter.
The audience reacted often with laughter at some statements out of step with modern sensibilities, and gasped at other tone-deaf lines in the show.
But it was long ago, and very different – as people evolve as relationships change over time.
Agnes and Michael are very much a traditional product of their time, and represent a conventional family, who live comfortably in a nice home. They marry young in the late 19th century, and then go through the ups and downs of cohabitation and raising two children. Michael’s growing success as a novelist is a key factor, and how he responds to his taken-for-granted wife, is chafing.
Because Ely and Schmittou are such good actors and so comfortable together, you believe them as a Mr. and Mrs. They easily convey the joys and sorrows expressed, although it really is every tired cliché about the institution of marriage.
They share some lovely moments, especially in the bittersweet “Someone Needs Me,” “Roll Up The Ribbons” and “This House”/Finale.”
Sometimes, the musical range of the songs doesn’t always work to their advantage. When the songs fit their lower registerit’s fine, but when the songs are in a higher range that their voice comfortably hits, it can be a little dicey. Ely was a tad wobbly with hitting some notes.
Nevertheless, they effortlessly won over the audience, who warmly embraced them and responded in recognition.
As good as they are dramatically, they also elevate the humor. Schmittou is charming in the upbeat “I Love My Wife” while Ely is adorable in “Something Has Happened” and poignant in the devastating “What Is a Woman?” – her high point and a show highlight.
Director Michael Hamilton keeps the show moving, and as choreographer, has brightened the musical numbers with simple yet effective moves. He’s used to staging big and splashy, crisp and snappy musicals, so this was a new venture — and without a stumble.
Another Stages stalwart, scenic designer James Wolk, has created the integral well-appointed bedroom, with sturdy hardwood furniture, and an inviting, comfortable double bed that is the focal point.
The bed’s not just a sleep station but the center of conversation. The action takes place here, with storage trunks, an easy chair and a chaise lounge all having a purpose. Sean M. Savoie does his customary splendid work with the lighting design.
Costume designer Brad Musgrove’s outfits took us through the first half of the 20th century, although a satiny green/blue flare-bottomed outfit Ely wore to bed in the ‘20s had me confused that we were in the 1970s.
However, Kari wore the beautiful layered chiffon dusty blue-gray Mother of the Bride dress with great panache. The voluminous late 19th century wedding gown and wedding night peignoir were quite elaborate for the petite Ely not to get swallowed up in, but she still moved well.
Her saucy defiance in “Flaming Agnes” benefits from a gigantic and outrageous hat. Wigs were a key component to the fashion as well, instantly indicating age and era.
Despite the book’s age showing and its construction faults, “I Do! I Do!” is a cozy musical that warms people’s hearts, and matter-of-factly shows them “Nobody’s Perfect.”
I can only imagine the conversations long-time married couples had in the car on the way home, as this one really struck a chord.
Stages St. Louis presents “I Do! I Do!’ from June 1 to July 1 at the Robert G. Reim Theatre, 111 S. Geyer Road, in Kirkwood. For tickets, call 314-821-2407 or visit www.stagesstlouis.org