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THEATER REVIEW / 'I DO! I DO!' : Life Stages : The musical traces a couple's emotional development, through 50 years of marriage, with humor and compassion.

February 18, 1993|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A two-character musical in a single bedroom set tracing the course of a marriage, without recourse to irony, plot twists, opponents and the other staples of heightened dramatic tension so beloved by dramatists.

It might seem a pretty unexceptional premise.

Unless, of course, you've accumulated something of a personal history yourself, in which case "I Do! I Do!'s" concern not only with patterns but life stages in a couple's emotional development may ring more than just wedding bells.

Whether you've managed to keep a long-term relationship afloat or not, there's plenty to identify with in the Center Stage Theatre's revival of this 1966 Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt vehicle.

In the near-fairy tale simplicity of plot that is the signature style of librettist Jones and composer Schmidt (who also gave us "The Fantasticks"), Michael (Richard Hoag) and Agnes (Karyl Lynn Burns) play out scenes from their half-century of married life.

In fact, "I Do! I Do!" can be seen as an adult postscript to "The Fantasticks," picking up with the sobering step of marriage.

If we really stopped to consider the enormity of that lifelong commitment, how many of us would ever go through with it?

Certainly Agnes and Michael in their first scene don't know what they're in for. Instead, they distract themselves with ceremonial trappings as they giggle and pass out wedding cake.

It's only when they get home to the bed they will share that an endearing trepidation takes hold: This is the first night they've spent together--or, somewhat unbelievably, with anyone else, for that matter.

Given this statistical anomaly, it takes some fine performances from Burns and Hoag to sidestep the schmaltz and keep Agnes and Michael credible as they grow up and grow old together.

Even though they stay married for 50 years, they face the same pressures and obstacles that lead to ever-increasing divorce statistics.

With the arrival of children, the romantic glow begins to fade, and the couple must ponder the true nature of their partnership. Their hidden frustrations hilariously pour forth in a War of the Lists. His clutter. Her noisy fussing around the house. His chewing in his sleep. The affair. The mid-life crisis.

As in "The Fantasticks," personal details are minimal, but the few that filter through are well-chosen and highly charged. In "My Daughter Is Marrying an Idiot," Hoag's clipped delivery gives perfect voice to the annoyance masking protective impulses in fathers everywhere.

Despite his charm, though, Hoag's Michael is every bit the pompous ass that Agnes finally recognizes him to be. After the children have gone and Agnes considers separation, Burns' rendition of "What Is a Woman?"--the evening's most eloquent scene--breathes fresh urgency into women's often-voiced and slowly heeded need for self-fulfillment.

The script's regrettable tendency toward tidy conflict resolution is probably the biggest challenge to overcome here. Hoag and Burns manage to keep the edges sharp, despite a tendency toward over-sweetness in director Greg Lee's otherwise judicious interpretation.

David Potter's keyboard accompaniment is all the embellishment that the elegant Jones-Schmidt songs (like "My Cup Runneth Over") require.

Simple, pared down to elemental feelings and delivered by pros, "I Do! I Do!" offers a glimmer of a reason to go the distance.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"I Do! I Do!" Performed through Feb. 28 at the Paseo Nuevo Center Stage Theatre in Santa Barbara. Tickets are $12.50. Call 963-0408 for reservations or information.

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