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‘I Do! I Do!’ at The American Century Theater by David Friscic

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The phrase “I Do! I Do!” takes on new meanings in the newly-interpreted version of the classic musicalI Do! I Do! now playing at the The American Century Theater. Sharply directed by Jack Marshall and Assistant Director Quinn Anderson, this has always been a marvelous and beloved homage to the world of married life – even with all the tension, drama, and tribulations that come with such a commitment.

Steve Lebens and Chad Fornwalt. Photo by Johannes Markus.

Steve Lebens and Chad Fornwalt. Photo by Johannes Markus.

A very successful musical, indeed, was produced on Broadway in 1966 starring Mary Martin and Robert Preston (and has been a long-time staple of Dinner Theatre) with a melodic score by Harvey Schmidt (music) and Tom Jones (lyrics) of the long-running The Fantasticks fame.  In this version , however, Artistic Director Marshall had the innovative and relevant idea to produce a version of this traditional musical for the post-DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) generation by adding two extra characters so that a gay male and a lesbian marriage could be presented as well.  What emerges is a very satisfying and challenging show that opens our minds and our hearts to the reality that what is important in relationships and marriage is commitment and love amidst the day-to-day struggles of life – one’s sexual orientation does not change the meaning of a loving partnership.

The four actors cast here intermingle beautifully and merge effortlessly at the beginning, middle and ending of scenes from one moment to the next. The characters are nameless except for the meaning that we give them. Wisely, Marshall and Quinn place the actors on a plain raised platform with a bed (and a “God is Love” pillow on said bed that gets more laughs than I would have ever thought possible!) so that the audience’s attention is even more directly placed on the proceedings in this intimate venue. On the walls surrounding the stage are framed pictures of various married couples – straight, gay, and lesbian. Set Designer Patrick Lord and Master Carpenter Trena Weiss-Null focus on spare modern simplicity in their design and succeed nicely

The deceptively simple and tuneful score of nineteen songs are actually more disarmingly powerful and poignant than I had remembered and ranges from sentimental reveries to comedic patter to dramatic belting.  Three pianists –Amy Conley, Laurie Corkey, and Alvin Smithson perform sensitive accompaniment throughout. All four principals shine vocally and in the acting department and all deserve mention: Steve Lebens, Mary Beth Luckenbaugh, Chad Fornwalt, and Esther Covington.

This production’s demands are strenuous in that the actors must pick up entrances, make transitions and exits at any given moment – often picking up the unfinished notes of a song as well. The concept works seamlessly and makes it very hard for the audience to favor the sexual orientation of any one couple over the other.

Often, all three couples sing components of one individual song. Especially striking is the use of visual counterpoint; when we see the gay male couple sing the very same song next to the lesbian couple on the same bed, an the effect is tremendously moving. Only as I write this review, am I realizing – in retrospect – the extreme intricacy that must have been involved in putting this show together.

If I was forced to pick any highlights I would have to mention Luckenbaugh’s cry of liberation as she struts her stuff in the rousing “Flaming Agnes” and the hilarious “Nobody’s Perfect,” especially as sung and interpreted by Lebens and Fornwalt.

The melancholy “Where Are the Snows?” was very reminiscent of Schmidt and Jones’ earlier standard about the passage of time, “Try to Remember” (from The Fantasticksand sung beautifully by Luckenbaugh and Leben. The first-act closer “The Honeymoon is Over” is a dramatic standout that leaves one guessing if all will end “happily ever after”. Musical Director Tom Fuller does a superb job as does Sound Designer Ed Moser.

Though all the actors are splendid I would be remiss if I did not mention the very fragile, wistful yet acerbic quality that Esther Covington brings to her role. Though almost self-effacing in her portrayal at the start of the show, Covington slowly develops several layers to her character as the show develops. She has a unique acting style reminiscent of the great acting iconoclasts such as Beatrice Lillie and Sandy Dennis.

Mention must also be made of the superb Costume Design of Rip Claassen and the Lighting Design by David Walden.

Esther Covington, Mary Beth Luckenbaugh, Steve Lebens, and Chad Fornwalt. Photo by Johannes Markus.

Esther Covington, Mary Beth Luckenbaugh, Steve Lebens, and Chad Fornwalt. Photo by Johannes Markus.

Sondheim’s Bobby in Company is foreshadowed when it is said that it is “not good to be alone.” A musical that could have been cloying and dated has been re-energized for a new era. The Engagement is on – and it’s time to make a commitment to The American Century Theater’s production of I Do! I Do!

Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes, with one fifteen-minute intermission.

I Do! I Do! runs plays though August 17, 2013 at The American Century Theater in the Gunston Arts Center Theater II – 2700 South Lang Street, in Arlington, VA. For tickets call 703-998-4555, or purchase them online.

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