Arvada Center’s season opener offers intimate, energetic reintroduction to live theater

You’d be hard-pressed to find a kinder, gentler reintroduction to the world of live theater than Arvada Center’s season opener of I Do! I Do! The intimate and poignant two-person play deftly sweeps you along from the awkward blundering of bashful newlyweds to the well-honed bickering of timeworn love as it follows the highs and lows of 50 years of marriage.

The premise of I Do! I Do! is simple as it follows the sometimes turbulent, mostly loving, always vocal marriage of couple Agnes and Michael starting with their blissful wedding night in 1898. It’s the gradual growth and maturing of the two as individuals, parents and as a couple, however, that is at the heart of the play. And although it can be a hurdle to overcome some of the dated gender and aging stereotypes, the relationship conflicts and personal development struggles prove to be timeless.

Director Rod A. Lansberry acknowledges that the Arvada Center purposefully selected the play in lieu of its normal opening-season full-cast musical due to uncertainties about COVID restrictions and the desire to create an emotional connection with an audience that is reemerging after a nearly two-year absence.

But even without a hiatus, it was the energy and connection between the actors on the night we attended (Twyla Wilson and John Donovan Wilson) that made the performance an intimate, yet energetic, welcome back to the Main Stage.

Unique twist

The production features two casts that alternate weekly – with a unique twist. Two real-life married couples play the part of Agnes and Michael.

The Wilsons are performing for the first time at the Center and they brought the full package as they danced, sang and acted their way through tender moments of intimacy and love countered by brittle and even vindicative acts of anger – encompassing the full spectrum of the marital landscape.

The other couple is Adriane Leigh Robinson, last seen on the Arvada Center stage in Elf! The Musical, and local actor Marco Robinson, who play on alternate weeks.

Marco Robinson and Adriane Leigh Robinson

Flawless execution and energy

The Wilsons’ powerful voices flawlessly work together, enhancing the sense of intimacy in the relationship and making it feel real. Although the emotional connection between the two felt missing at the beginning, the chemistry became apparent as the marriage hit stride and was definitely in play by the end.

John Donovan deftly walks the fine line of keeping his character likeable despite his pompous airs and inflated ego. (Best on display in the song, “A Well Known Fact.”) His ability to alternate between a booming voice and modulated sincerity hit the right notes at the right time, such as in “The Father of the Bride.”

Twyla can belt out the notes to keep pace, including “Flaming Agnes” and “Nobody’s Perfect.” Her high-octane performance also captures the wit and spirit of Agnes, which helps soften some of the sexist stereotypes that twine throughout the script.

And all this was accomplished with dancing, whirling, tapping and bed bouncing across the stage – no small aerobic feat. But one that was accomplished smoothly and flowed so effortlessly that the kinetic energy was almost its own presence on the stage.

The six-piece orchestra under the direction of Trent Hines, remained tucked out-of-sight, but not out-of-mind — the well-executed live music gave the on-stage energy a boost.

Artful staging and costumes

So many parts of I Do! I Do! are simple and straight-forward, which work as the perfect counterbalance to the emotional turmoil unfolding on the stage.

The set is static and the props are sparse despite the passing of 50 years. Agnes and Michael’s simple bedroom prominently features a four-poster bed with a chair and vanity on each side – a his and her’s set-up. It remains a stable sanctuary even as they age and their children, who are never seen nor heard, grow up and leave the nest.

The gradual aging of the couple is done gracefully through understated makeup, updated clothing and subtle shifts in their posture. Perhaps the best example of this is in the last act when they slowly enter, bent with age, sit at their respective vanities and face the mirrors while applying makeup to deepen their face lines as they reveal that they are readying to leave their family home of 50 years.

Agnes’s costumes are true to the period, and simply divine. She floats in gowns of gossamer and lace as she confesses she doesn’t care for the socializing required by Michael’s writing career or searches for her purse as they dress for their daughter’s wedding. Later she throws on a stunning hat and ermine wrap over her frumpy nightgown as she threatens to leave and take the “nice things” she’s gifted herself to compensate for her husband’s recent disinterest.

Even Michael’s more demure suits have all the right details, with his sock garters remaining a staple as he matures from a young man eagerly undressing for his wedding night, to a discontented father convinced his daughter is marrying an idiot.

Aging of the play

The musical is set at the turn of the 20th Century and reflects gender and age stereotypes of that era. And the play itself is aging. I Do! I Do!, written by Tom Jones with music by Harvey Schmidt, originally premiered in 1966. But it is actually based on a Jan de Hartog play, The Fourposter, written in 1951.

We’ve come a long way – even if there is still a journey ahead.

So, knowing that it’s dated, you can either select to take it in stride and appreciate the richness of the characters, including the wit and strength of Agnes as the matriarch, or you can become distracted by the sexual stereotypes and ageism. I hope you chose the former because it will remind you why there is no replacement for live theater.