The Pasadena Playhouse mixes apples and oranges -- or make that chestnuts and pistachios -- with its latest production, "The Marriage Musicals," a program of two musicals playing in repertory through Aug. 6.
The musicals are Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones' "I Do! I Do!" and Jason Robert Brown's "The Last Five Years." Both are two-character shows about marriage. Beyond that obvious similarity, however, these strange bedfellows are so wildly dissimilar in tenor and theme, one wonders how they ever hooked up.
First produced on Broadway in 1966, "I Do! I Do!" -- a portrait of a 50-year marriage from wedding night onward -- ran for more than 500 performances and garnered the 1967 Tony as best musical. Produced off-Broadway in 2002, "Years" -- a treatment of a doomed union based on Brown's own failed marriage -- lasted only two months.
The 35-plus-year divide between these productions is sociologically telling. In fact, the odd coupling of shows provides a time-capsule perspective of American society from the pre- to post-feminist eras. The husband and wife in "I Do!" inhabit a cozy domestic microcosm only occasionally ruffled by the forces of modernity. The more egalitarian couple in "Years" are locked in a competition for territory.
In terms of dramatic artistry, "Years" is a sleek thoroughbred on a fast track. By contrast, "I Do!" is a gimpy war horse overburdened with cutesiness and cliche. Why is it, then, that "Years" is so intrinsically annoying whereas "I Do!" maintains an elemental sweetness that supersedes its triteness?
Both shows have been ably directed by Nick DeGruccio, with choreography by Lee Martino and musical direction by David O, who also functions as the lead piano accompanist. Nicely lighted by Steven Young, Tom Buderwitz's sets rest on a forbiddingly pitched stage from which tiny props continually cascade. Jean-Pierre Dorleac's splendid costumes delineate particularly well the 50-year sweep of "I Do!" while Frederick W. Boot's excellent sound design is the perfect mix of voices and instruments.
All the production elements are solidly professional, but O's contribution is the most laudable -- not so evidently in "I Do!," which has the bulletproof tunes of a vintage musical, as in "Years," a fantastically challenging score that requires an inspired hand at the baton. O addresses its musical intricacies with authority and skill.
Dripping with nostalgia, "I Do!" introduces us to Michael (mellow-voiced Tom Schmid) and Agnes (appropriately perky Julie Dixon Jackson) on their wedding night -- an occasion rife with coy references and nudge-nudge humor that soon wears thin. Agnes becomes pregnant in short order, and Michael, an aspiring novelist, suspends his dreams of artistic greatness to write lucrative romances that will support his growing brood. Yet Agnes suspends her dreams of a romantic idyll as she settles into domesticity.
The extremely self-involved characters in "Years," by contrast, are unwilling to compromise their dreams in the least, much less actively suspend them. Also a novelist -- but a far more successful one -- Jamie (Daniel Tatar) weds Cathy (Misty Cotton), an aspiring actress whose career is eclipsed by his early celebrity. Her mounting resentment soon drives him into the arms of another woman. As an added gimmick, his story is told from front to back, while hers picks up from the breakup and goes back in time to their first meeting. The only time the two interact is during his marriage proposal.
The well-matched Tatar and Cotton deliver brilliant performances that sufficiently distract us from their characters' insufferable narcissism. One doesn't wonder that Brown's ex-wife famously threatened to sue him for this drama a clef. More self-justification than art, Brown's musical festers with egotism that undermines its effect. It may be more cosmetically fetching than the unsightly "I Do!" -- but one suspects it will not be so durable.
'The Marriage Musicals': 'I Do! I Do!' and 'The Last Five Years'
Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 5 and 9 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; 2 p.m. July 26
Ends: Aug. 6
Price: $54 to $71
Contact: For show schedules and tickets, (626) 356-7529 or www.pasadenaplayhouse.org
Running times: 'I Do!,' 2 hours, 30 minutes; 'Years,' 1 hour, 30 minutes