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Review: A 50-year Musical Marriage at Bickford

Theate wraps season with “I Do! I Do!”

The Garden State is deservedly famous for its sweet Jersey corn. Now, a bittersweet variety is being cultivated at the Bickford Theatre in Morris Township.

The professional theater company at the is wrapping its 2011-12 season with the popular little musical, “I Do! I Do!”—which is far tamer than suggested by the punctuation in its title. A seven-time Tony nominee (and a winner for star Robert Preston) in 1966, this dated but pleasant affair comes from the creative team of Tom Jones (book-lyrics) and Harvey Schmidt (music), who six years earlier had launched an off-Broadway franchise with “The Fantasticks.”

Premiering at a time when women’s liberation was beginning to shake up the status quo, “I Do! I Do!” revisited the institution of marriage at an earlier time—the turn of the century—when the roles of men and women were more defined … and terribly unbalanced.

We meet the play’s only two characters, Michael (Scott McGowan) and Agnes (Christine Marie Heath), as they are about to marry in 1898. Then, over the course of two hours, two acts and 17 songs, we share the next 50 years of their life together.

The music is light, sweet and frequently sentimental, but toughens up occasionally during the more troubled and dramatic moments of their relationship. The highlight is a song familiar to most baby boomers — “My Cup Runneth Over”—which has become a standard for folkies and crooners, but many people do not know it originated here.

McGowan and Heath are both gifted singers and turn in a stirring version of the song, which Preston sang with Mary Martin in the Broadway premiere. Both are fine actors as well, although it’s hard to like McGowan’s Michael, an increasingly successful and pompous novelist whose inflated sense of accomplishment justifies the escalating abuse of his wife.

Credit Jones for what might have passed in 1966 as an honest portrayal of marriage back in the day, but 46 years further, it’s a bit troubling to feel this sort of behavior merge with the nostalgic appeal of what has become one of the most-often produced musicals in the United States.

Sure, part of that is due to the relatively low production costs for a musical, given there are only two characters and it is scored for two pianists (Nick De Gregorio and Jack Bender, both top-notch). But it wouldn’t keep getting done if audiences did not continue to respond to it, so you worry about who enjoys seeing a wife endure a few things no modern woman (hopefully, anyway) would stand for.

For most people, it keeps pointing back to the music and the belief that, over 50 years, most couples will have their share of conflicts, but true love generally wins out in the end. Add another attractive set (the couple’s bedroom is the only set, dominated by a four-poster bed and two large window frames, through which you can see the pianists in the back) by reliable designer Bill Motyka and the softest of soft-shoes—that would be barefoot—and there’s enough charm here to win over even the most cynical of theater critics. Chances are it will do the same for you.

“I Do! I Do!” runs through May 6 at the Bickford Theatre, 6 Normandy Heights Road, Morris Township. Tickets are $20 to $40. For information, call 973-971-3706 or visit BickfordTheatre.org.

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