The Marriage Musicals

What an interesting notion, pairing two musicals from vastly different eras, each exploring the ups and downs of a marriage in an intimate, two-character format. The conventional framework and feel-good paradigm of I Do! I Do! (1966), by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones (The Fantasticks), adhere to a cotton-candy style that matured exponentially following contributions by the likes of Kander and Ebb, Sondheim, and Michael John LaChiusa. Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years (2002) is an artistic descendant of the latter-day efforts—musical theatre romance filtered through darker, more-complex sensibilities. Despite their vast differences in tone and ambition, this golden-age relic and 21st century innovator share similar strengths and weaknesses. Thankfully, director Nick DeGruccio's classy renditions maximize the virtues of both vehicles.

"Vehicle" indeed seems the ideal term to describe the frothy I Do! I Do!, which originally provided a tailor-made showcase for Mary Martin and Robert Preston. Following the chronological progression of a marriage from late-1890s wedding-day jitters to septuagenarian contentment, based on Jan de Hartog's 1951 comedy The Fourposter, it's less a play than a string of comic sketches punctuated by song, accented with moments of gentle poignancy. Each crisis—from infidelity to empty-nest syndrome—is never more than a ripple in a sea of bliss, quickly resolved in a tidy Nick@Nite fashion before moving on to the next episode. If the sum of the parts in Jones' skeletal book seems less than revelatory, the 20 songs (lyrics by Jones; music by Schmidt) are appealing, alternating witty comic ditties and passionate ballads. Highlights are the gorgeous duet "My Cup Runneth Over" and the delightfully droll "When the Kids Get Married." Julie Dixon Jackson and Tom Schmid exude the vocal prowess and charm to keep the episodes engaging. Mastering the physical comedy and flippant repartee, the actors capture the lighthearted fun at the heart of this unpretentious confection.

Brown's Five Years, as evidenced by the title, focuses on a much tighter time frame, presented in 90 uninterrupted minutes. Like I Do, it provides a good showcase for gifted actor-singers, and Misty Cotton and Daniel Tatar eloquently meet that challenge. Despite its unconventional dramatic structure and cerebral intentions, the material's key shortcoming mirrors I Do's: It never quite makes the leap from interesting episodes to cohesive whole. Primarily a string of alternating solos, the show dramatizes the early exhilaration and step-by-step disintegration of a marriage with almost no face-to-face interaction. Brown's decision to sequence the episodes two ways simultaneously—she relates the story from end to beginning; he does the opposite—adds to the distancing effect. It feels like an attempt at a Pinteresque chamber musical that morphed into a glorified song cycle. Yet the songs are entertaining, graced with smart, complex lyrics; engaging melodies; and effective dramatic crescendos. Cotton shines in her hilarious bits as an actor attending auditions-from-hell and the charismatic Tatar parlays the Christmas-themed fable "The Schmuel Song" into an irresistible highlight. Both performers excel vocally and convey an impressive range of emotions.

The evening is enhanced by Lee Martino's elegant choreography; David O's splendid music direction; fine accompaniment by O, Dean Mora, and Sarah O'Brien; and an exemplary design effort (Tom Buderwitz, sets; Jean-Pierre Dorleac, costumes; Steven Young, lighting; Frederick W. Boot, sound). Mixing the tart and the sweet, DeGruccio gives us a tasty double-dose of summertime refreshment.

Presented by and at Pasadena Playhouse, Tue.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 5 & 9 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. (Also Wed. 2 p.m. Jul. 26 and American Sign Language performance Sun. 2 p.m. Jul. 30. Dark Jul. 11, 19, & 26.) Jul. 8-Aug. 6. (626) 356-7529.