“I Do! I Do!” at the Westport Country Playhouse

“You chew in your sleep.”

There is just something about that line from “Nobody’s Perfect” from the first act of I Do! I Do! that never fails to crack me up. When Michael and Agnes, the couple at the musical’s center list their complaints about the other, this particular one comes entirely out of left field. It’s unexpected, but is met with a big, knowing laugh as it is the sort of minor character trait to drive a spouse or significant other up the wall. It’s just one of the many relatable moments in the tender musical. And it didn’t fail to make me laugh out loud last Saturday when the newly minted KBG (Kate Baldwin Gang – including yours truly) invaded Connecticut to see the show at the Westport Country Playhouse out in Connecticut (our first visit to the esteemed regional theatre).

The theatre is housed in a converted tannery which has housed many estimable productions. Come Back, Little Sheba and The Trip to Bountiful received their world premieres at the house. Its 1940 production of Lynn Riggs’ Green Grow the Lilacs, directed by John Ford, was the inspiration for the Theatre Guild’s eventual musical adaptation of the play (a little thing called Oklahoma!).

We arrived in Westport at 5:30 and were immediately taken with the theatre’s exterior: this “red barn” both large and  warmly inviting. After getting our bearings, we made our way next door to the Dressing Room, a homegrown restaurant started in 2006 by chef Michel Nischan and the late, great Paul Newman, who was a great champion of the Westport Playhouse. Everything on the menu is local, natural and organic and might I add quite delicious (the mac and cheese came with cured pork, ’nuff said). The pleasant experience spilled over into the theatre lobby as we scanned the production stills and window cards on the walls, amazed at the major theatre and film stars who had worked at the Playhouse. After some a minor farce regarding our seats just as the show was starting, we settled into the center orchestra of the gorgeous theatre for the show. (We didn’t realize we had different seats; the house staff was nothing short of patient and helpful).

I Do! I Do! is a two person musical based on Jan de Hartog’s The Fourposter, a portrait, or perhaps more appropriately, a crocheted sampler of a 50 year marriage. The action is set entirely in Michael and Agnes’ bedroom, as they sing and dance their way through the moments, great and small, which define wedded life. The show opened in 1966 starring Mary Martin and Robert Preston. It was a bit unusual at the time: a big Broadway musical with a cast of two and a unit set. Producer David Merrick liked the idea because it was cost effective. Reviews were strong and the show ran 560 performances, winning a Tony for Preston. The show also offered the gentle ballad “My Cup Runneth Over,” which became a pop hit for Ed Ames. (The song also sent the older audience into a tittering frenzy of recognition at the top of the second act, much to our amusement).

Kate Baldwin and Lewis Cleale are headlining in this sparkling production directed by Susan H. Schulman and choreographed by Michael Lichtefeld. Kate, fresh from the Menier Chocolate Factory’s Paradise Found and a Tony nomination for Finian’s Rainbow, is nothing short of captivating as Agnes. This performance is just another rung on the ladder to her inevitable musical theatre super-stardom. There is a strength and tenderness to her Agnes, which is thrillingly sung and exceptionally acted. Ms. Baldwin radiates with that same effusive presence which made a stage legend out of Ms. Martin.

Cleale is a perfect foil, tenderly romantic and consistently hard-headed. Michael isn’t the greatest husband, but Cleale imbues him with such humanity that even at his worst (and oh, Michael can be a real bonehead), it’s impossible not to care for him. Their chemistry is infectious and playful. One of the high points of the show comes in the second act toetapper “When the Kids Get Married” in which she plays the violin and he the saxophone – quite badly (and complete with a shave-and-a-haircut ride out). I have to admit I just sat there for two hours, smiling unabashedly. If there was a flaw in the evening’s performance, it was lost on me. This I Do! I Do! is utter charm from start to finish.

It’s a period piece, so some of the sensibilities feel a bit dated but it doesn’t detract from its smartly constructed book and lovely score. Wilson Chin’s unit set perfectly complements both the piece and the production, with some truly striking period flourishes. Devin Painter’s costume design is period perfect; especially in Baldwin’s period costumes. This production utilizes the two piano reduction created for the 1996 off-Broadway revival, and it fits the piece and the venue quite well. I know it seems unlikely, but I wouldn’t object if this production came to NY. Due to popular demand, the show has been extended through September 4 and believe me, you don’t want to miss this one. Oh – and Westport is now definitely a place I want to revisit, again and again.

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