There's a reason why I Do! I Do! has been a perennial reparatory theatre favourite since its debut in the mid-1960s. It's the rare musical that requires a minimal cast of two characters and a single set of a married couple's bedroom, and with the right chemistry between its leads, it's an involving mix of humour and emotion that will appeal to anyone who's ever been in a relationship, marital or otherwise.
Wolfville's Valley Summer Theatre production of the musical by The Fantasticks team of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt has just the right ingredients in Amy Stewart Reitsma and Ian Gilmore, who enter the bedroom of their new home as newlyweds Agnes and Michael Snow in 1895 and leave it as retirees 50 years later. While the play — based on Jan de Hartog's 1951 two-hander The Fourposter — doesn't lean heavily on the events of the times through which the Snows' lives pass, there is a subtle sense of changing attitudes and mores as the years fly by.
From beginning their life together at the close of the Victorian era, to saying goodbye to their home at the end of the Second World War, Agnes and Michael have lived through one of the most dynamic periods in history. But the play is about their personal battles and triumphs, and a fair share of truces, over the course of two hours. "It's a strange new world that you enter when you say, 'I do,' " sings Agnes on their wedding night, and many of the hopes she shares with a smile as she tosses her bouquet into the audience will come true, but so will the uncertainties.
As for Michael, he loves his wife, as he sings while doing a barefoot soft-shoe dance on the morning after their initial conjugation, but does he love her as a partner or because now he has someone to help carry on the family line and perform the duties of the household? As a writer of popular, if insubstantial, historical romantic novels, he has their financial security in hand, but as a male homo sapiens of a bygone era, he's got a steep learning curve ahead of him.
For her part, Agnes has her work cut out for her, coping with the arrival of two children, and her husband's over-inflated ego, especially when he draws the attentions of a younger woman, and informs his wife that in his 40s he's entering his prime while women at the same age become matronly and "go to pot." It's a miracle she doesn't strangle him with her new Spanish shawl, "made by the Gypsies in Cadiz." By this time, she's seen the arrival of the women's suffrage movement, with the Jazz Age flappers not far behind, and the daggers that Agnes stares at Michael when he declares it's not his fault he's become irresistible to other women practically materialize in mid-air.
If the play has a fault, it's that Michael tends to get his way in the end, even when he's the one who's been unfaithful or insensitive. Chalk it up to the temper of the times, or the conservative Quaker background of the original Tony Award-winning play's author de Hartog, but it's hard not to wish the story could allow Agnes a little more independence, especially when she feels a yawning void in her life after the children have grown up and moved out to start families of their own.
At this point in the review, it should be apparent that the level of investment in what Agnes does or doesn't do is an indicator of how much Reitsma and Gilmore make us care about their characters over the course of I Do! I Do! The pair is well-matched on all levels, with beautifully matched soprano and baritone voices, well-trained to handle the many shifts from light romantic comedy to heart-wrenching drama, and working in close collaboration with director Pamela Halstead to create a true feeling of intimacy.
Reitsma is blessed with wide, expressive eyes that can be read from the back of the room whether she's glaring at Michael with disgust or blazing with passion as "Flaming Agnes" does a shimmy in her new hat. Gilmore's Michael is a picture of blustering machismo, ready to be deflated at a moment's notice by one of his wife's cutting insights. But whether solving life's problems over a nice hot cup of tea or threatening to tear the whole marriage down, the pair never strikes a false note as the course of their true love runs smooth, crooked, or bumpy in the extreme.
I Do! I Do! runs at Valley Summer Theatre, in Wolfville's Al Whittle Theatre (a.k.a. the Acadia Theatre & Just Us! Cafe) until Aug. 6. Advance tickets are available online at www.ticketpro.ca, or by phone at 1-877-845-1341.
I Do! I Do!
Written by: Tom Jones (book/lyrics) & Harvey Schmidt, based on The Fourposter by Jan de Hartog
Cast: Ian Gilmore, Amy Stewart Reitsma
Director: Pamela Halstead
Musical Director: Chuck Homewood
Second Piano: Lisa St. Clair
Choreography: Veronique MacKenzie
Set Design: Danielle Wilson
Costume Design: Helena Marriott
Lighting Design: Bruce MacLennan
Stage Manager: Hannah Burrows