‘I Do! I Do!,” Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s two-person musical exploration of Michael and Agnes’ 50 years of married life opens the 21st season Bristol Riverside Theater. “I Do! I Do!” has special significance for this theater. Barbara McCulloh, who plays Agnes, and Brad Little, who plays Michael, are in fact a married couple — and they first met in 1989 when they were performing the leading roles in “The Robber Bridegroom” on Bristol’s very stage. Little and McCulloh, profiled in U.S.1 on February 7, 2007, for a benefit they did for Trenton Community Music School, have been together ever since and have starred in two other musicals at Bristol, “Irma La Douce” and “Baby.”
McCulloh has had an active career in both musicals and dramas, on and off Broadway, in a variety of regional theaters, and on national tours. She has also appeared on television and in movies. Little has played the Phantom in some 2,100 performances of “Phantom of the Opera,” not just on Broadway, but on tour in the United States, and over the past two years on tour in Asia. Presumably one of the pleasures for McCulloh and Little of being in this production is that it gives them a chance to be together in what must be a somewhat frenetic life.
“I Do! I Do!,” apparently Broadway’s first two-person musical, begins with Michael and Agnes’ wedding. As the play starts, Nels Anderson’s splendid, highly serviceable set consists of the outside of a frame Victorian house that has something of the aura of a watercolor illustration for a children’s book. Walking downstairs to a level below the house, Michael and Agnes pledge their vows, and as they go back up the stairs after the ceremony, the walls of the house swing open to reveal their bedroom (and the set for the rest of the play). A large four-poster bed dominates the room, with small tables and shelves to both sides. Various other smaller pieces of furniture slide in from the wings when necessary, but the rest of the action takes place in this one room.
Even the unprecedented popularity of Jones and Schmidt’s “The Fantasticks” (the most performed musical in the world, now playing Off-Broadstreet Theater, see page 28) does not dim the luster of “I Do! I Do!”’s success. Based on Jan de Hartog’s Tony-winning play “The Fourposter,” “I Do! I Do!” opened on Broadway in 1966 with Mary Martin and Robert Preston as the first Agnes and Michael. It ran for 560 performances and received many Tony nominations. It also had a successful national tour and an off-Broadway revival and is a favorite among regional theaters. Little and McCulloh do a wonderful job portraying the ups and downs of their marriage, from the annoyances caused by various episodes of childishness and selfishness to disagreements about how to raise their two children, to the serious dangers brought on by an affair. They also handle their aging with great skill. Keith Baker, Bristol Riverside’s artistic director, serves as director for the show and has done a bang-up job. Lisa Zinni is the costume designer, who must deal with the 50 years between 1895 and 1945. Her task is perhaps made a little easier by the fact that Michael spends a large part of the first act in a night shirt. Also, the characters are often in evening clothes, which have probably changed less over the years than other types of clothing. Even though the time period of a scene may not always be obvious from what Agnes and Michael are wearing, Zinni’s designs are attractive and sit well on her characters.
Although this is a musical, the audience never sees the musicians. They are backstage with two pianos, a keyboard, and a monitor that keeps them in touch with the stage. (For those of us who like watching the musicians play, this technological advance that enables the players to stay with the singers even when they cannot see them, is a mixed blessing.) The pianos and keyboard are played by Matthew Ward, the musical director, and Louis F. Goldberg. The singers are not miked, a wonderfully refreshing change from what has become standard practice in so many theaters. Time was when we could count on the sound coming directly from the singer or actor, but when miking is used, the sound comes from all over, and that direct tie to a specific actor or singer is lost. McCulloh and Little both have strong well- focused voices; they are always audible, but they never overdo the loud places, and one never has the feeling they’re endangering their vocal futures.
I Do! I Do!, through Sunday, October 21, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, PA. Musical about 50 years of marriage. $42. 215-785-0100.