REVIEW: To Master the Art (Timeline Theatre)

     
     

Delectable Julia Childs biography feeds the soul (if not your belly!)

 

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TimeLine Theatre presents
   
To Master the Art
   
By William Brown and Doug Frew
Directed by William Brown
TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington (map)
Through Dec. 19   |  
Tickets: $28–38  |   more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Don’t go hungry to see To Master the Art, TimeLine Theatre Company’s sparkling, heartwarming play about culinary icon Julia Child. Director William Brown and co-author Doug Frew have created a masterful, multi-layered experience that excites all the senses. Its tasty imagery and food talk, the loads of fresh ingredients displayed and the onstage cookery that wafts the scent of sauteed onions out to the audience will leave you ravenous.

ToMasterTheArt_187This world premiere covers the decade Child wrote about in ‘My Life in France’, beginning with her first exposure to French food and cookery, when she and her husband, Paul, lived in Paris while he worked for the United States Information Service. We see Child’s sensual pleasure in her first French lunch. We learn with her how to choose vegetables and cook the perfect scrambled eggs. We see her frustrations as she works on the manuscript that would ultimately become the seminal “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”.

Brown’s staging is impeccable, and his cast first-rate. Though a little young for the part — Child is 39 at the start of the play, and 50 by the time her first cookbook is published — Karen Janes Woditsch has Julia down, voice and mannerisms all exactly right. As her husband, Paul, Craig Spidle appears a bit more than 10 years his wife’s senior, but there’s plenty of sizzle between them. This is a love story, not just a food history.

It also touches on politics. Set in the 1950s, when the Red Scare was in full swing, the play chronicles the difficulties that even Americans abroad had with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Amy Dunlap expressively plays the Childs’ bohemian and possibly Communist artist friend, Jane Foster Zlatovski, persecuted by the witchhunt, and a dramatic scene shows an interrogation Paul Child underwent. We also see Paul’s increasing dissatisfaction with his government overseers. And, sometimes, his impatience with what becomes his wife’s sometimes overwhelming obsession. Spouses of food writers, chefs and other avid cooks will empathize with his heartfelt cry at yet another iteration of onion soup: "How many gallons of this stuff do I have to eat?"

 

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You needn’t be a foodie to enjoy this show. But those who love to cook and to eat will find lots to delight them. Designer Keith Pitts has created a quaint and workable Parisian kitchen that forms the backdrop for much of the action, complete with antique stove and pots hanging on the wall. (A culinary friend of mine spotted a ringer in the kitchenware, but it doesn’t matter.)

Terry Hamilton doubles in a delightful performance as Child’s mentor Chef Max Bugnard and her conservative, xenophobic father. Jeannie Affelder gives French fire to Child’s collaborator Simone Beck.

Ann Wakefield portrays the stuffy Madame Brassart, who balks Child’s progress at her cooking school, and wonderfully, Child’s wildly enthusiastic penpal Avis DeVoto. (In a minor flaw, the origins of the correspondence between DeVoto and Child, who had not met when they began writing to each other, is explained only in the program: Child had written to DeVoto’s husband, Bernard, about a magazine article he’d penned about knives — and received an answer from Avis, who had inspired the piece.)  In an excellent piece of staging, Wakefield appears to act out DeVoto’s letters to Child. Juliet Hart also appears in an epistolary role as Judith Jones, the editor who ultimately shepherded Child’s work to print.

Ian Paul Custer, Joel Gross and Ethan Sacks fill out the cast, each ably playing a variety of roles.

TimeLine waited a long time before it commissioned a play — To Master the Art is the first in the 14-year-old company’s history — but it certainly started out with a flourish. Kudos also to dramaturg Maren Robinson and others who provided the excellent information about Child and her world contained in the program and lobby displays.

My only quibble: The show runs roughly two and half hours. It’s tough to sit through such a long, delectably food-centric play with nothing to eat. It ought to be dinner theater. At least, they should serve a snack at intermission!

   
   
Rating: ★★★★
   
   

Note: Free post-show discussions take place on selected Thurdays and Sundays. An hour-long panel discussion will occur on Sunday, Nov. 14.

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Extra Credit:

     

REVIEW: Bubble Tea Party (Stir-Friday Night)

   
   

Stir-Friday Night celebrates 15 years

 

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Stir-Friday Night presents
   
Bubble Tea Party
     
Written/Performed by the Company
Directed by Pat McKenna
Chicago Center for the Performing Arts
777 N. Green St., Chicago (map)
Through Nov. 20  | 
Tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

It’s been 15 years since the late Quincy Wong and Keith Uchima founded Stir-Friday Night. The troupe got its start after a group of Asian-American actors met through Jade Monkey King, a musical Uchima created in 1995. The duo decided that Asian-American writers, directors and actors needed a bigger showcase.

"When you saw Asians on stage, they were the doctor guy, the second-banana guy," Uchima recalled at opening night of Stir-Friday Night’s 15th-anniversary revue. So the two men worked to found a company that would feature exclusively Asian-Amerians. Ultimately, that evolved into the sketch-comedy and improv troupe that’s still going strong – Stir-Friday Night.

This current group includes artists, mostly U.S.-born, who trace their heritage to India, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines. Their 15th-anniversary show, Bubble Tea Party, doesn’t show everything this company is capable of. Sketch-comedy revues tend to be uneven by their very nature — this one is more so than most.

The cast members all perform very well — when the show suffers, it’s in the writing. Some of the skits are lame — such as a recurring business about Olympic-style "Geisha Games" and an overlong, elaborate sketch of crude puns set in historic England; blue humor doesn’t seem to be this troupe’s strength. Other sketches start with interesting premises but never manage to come together, as in an odd piece that lampoons the Tea Partiers with an Alice in Wonderland theme and one in which a guy tries to convince his friend to eat 25 tacos in 60 seconds.

Undeniably, the company does its best work when it concentrates on the Asian-American experience. Two hilarious skits feature Amrita Dhaliwal playing an immigrant South Asian mother interacting with her American-born offspring.

The show follows up the scripted pieces with some improv, also with mixed results. The lineup isn’t set yet, but the company expects a few alumni to make guest appearances as well.

Stir-Friday Night deserves congratulations for its 15 years, and this show has enough funny moments to be worthwhile, but the troupe isn’t tapping the talent pool of Asian-American comedy writers deeply enough.

   
   
Rating: ★★
   
  

Ensemble: Melissa Canciller, Amrita Dhaliwal, Samantha Garcia, Erica Ikeda, Jin Kim, Christine Lin, Harrison Pak, Avery Lee and Jasbir Singh Vazquez

  
    

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REVIEW: The Dinner Detective (Knickerbocker Hotel)

  
  

Murder mystery lame but the food’s good

 

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The Dinner Detective presents
   
The Dinner Detective
      
Millennium Knickerbocker Hotel Chicago
163 E. Walton Place, Chicago (map)
Open run | 
Tickets: $59.95 (includes dinner)  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes 

"My partner and I have never successfully solved a crime." That’s the way Det. Teddy Hugs introduces himself at the The Dinner Detective. So I can’t say its producers have achieved their goals: The Dinner Detective was founded on three simple ideas: We wanted to create a show with NO hokey costumes, NO lame scenarios and NO campy dialogue," say promoters of the interactive murder-mystery dinner show newly opened in Chicago after playing in Los Angeles since 2004.

Dinner Detective Murder Mystery Dinner - Chicago 001"Hokey," "lame" and "campy" are exactly the words to describe this raucous comic mystery where actors are disguised as members of the audience and you get to solve the crime. However, that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun if you go into it with the right spirit (and enough spirits).

As you file into the dining room, you’re asked to choose your name for the evening — "something that’s not boring." Nametags at my table bore such names as Double Nickles, Coppertop, Shady and Zippy.

A host starts off the action with some introductory rules. During a meet-and-greet period, audience members are asked to interview each other in an effort to scope out who the criminal will be. The most creative question someone asked me was, "Have you ever wanted to kill a boss or an employee?" The person sitting next to you might be another theater goer, or one of the cast. (Hint: There are three public cast members and three ringers. The show doesn’t release the actors’ names or photos so as not to spoil the mystery.)

The food starts coming around next. Along with the show, your ticket buys you a full dinner starting with a couple of passed hors d’oeuvres, a tossed salad, a choice of entrees — grilled chicken breast with Dijon demiglace, grilled salmon with cucumber-dill relish or angel hair pesto primavera tossed with roasted vegetables, garlic oil, butter and pesto — with sides, dessert and coffee. The dinner, among the best food I’ve had at an event of this type, makes the package almost worth the ticket price. My plate featured perfectly cooked salmon and wonderful pureed potatoes. Drinks, at additional cost, range from $5.50 for pop to $11 for cocktails.

Dinner Detective Murder Mystery Dinner - Chicago 015The action alternates with the courses of meal. After the appetizers, the host starts interviewing various audience members who may or may not actually be actors, only to be interrupted by the arrival of Hugs and his partner, Det. Sam Cisco, who make an exaggerated swagger around the room.

Then the murder victim bursts in, dying with extreme hamminess. During the rest of the evening, amid assorted histrionics, the detectives interview and accuse various audience members, asking about what they do for a living, their hobbies and other such details. A woman who said she was an actress was urged to present a scene. Other audience members were prompted to reenact the death scene.

Periodically, the lamebrained detectives uncover a clue, which is passed around to the audience on photocopied sheets. Ultimately, everyone gets a chance to guess the murderer and the one who guesses right wins a prize.

If you go to this show with the idea that it’s going to be less intellectually challenging than a game of Clue, bring a group of friends and indulge liberally at the cash bar, you’ll likely have a great time.

   
  
Rating: ★★
 
 

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REVIEW: Stalk (La Costa Theatre)

     
     

Grim fairy tale never lightens up

 

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La Costa Theatre presents
   
Stalk
 
By Stephen Gawrit
Directed by James Wagoner
La Costa Theatre, 3931 N. Elston, et al. (map)
Through Nov. 28  | 
Tickets: $15–25  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Uncomfortable topics have been the subject of many musicals, but rarely one so agonizing as Stalk, a world premiere by Stephen Gawrit currently at La Costa Theatre. This very dark story uses the fairy tale of "Jack and the Beanstalk" as a metaphor for child abuse.

That Stalk isn’t an ordinary musical becomes apparent right from the beginning … more than 10 minutes go past before we get to the first song. Instead, we hear young Jack’s parents engaged in a bitter off-stage argument, full of invective and foul language, and watch him sneak away with his grandmother to a strange circus where an odd, Bradburyesque barker tells the familiar story of the boy who traded the family cow for a handful of magic beans.

Stalk the Musical - La Coste Theatre 023Cleverly conceived in many ways, the show features larger-than life puppets and masks conveying the fairy-tale characters. Gawrit employs interesting characterizations and intriguing uses of fantasy to emphasize his point.

But it never, ever lightens up. Stalk is a downer from start to finish. We watch Jack grow up in fear and pain with his brutal father and drug-addled mother, two bitterly disappointed souls forced to give up their youthful goals to be a musician and actress to return to their hometown, where he works in an abattoir and she waits tables. We witness a vicious beating and worse. Poor Jack’s only solace is his fey and ineffectual grandmother, and she dies in a pretty ugly way in front of him.

Hamlet has more bright notes than this show. There’s almost no comic relief. Other musicals, The Who’s Tommy, for instance, manage to deal with such very serious themes in far more entertaining and less depressing ways.

The pop/soft-rock tunes of Gawlit’s often dirgelike score underscore the grim mood. The music’s pleasant and well-performed, but after a while it all sounds the same. There’s not an upbeat song in the bunch.

Even "I Shine for You," a love song that Lily and Gregory, Jack’s parents sing to each other, has dark edges. "Edge of My Horizon," a song the then-teenaged Jack and his friend, Greta, sing at the start of the second act is lighter and more charming than most, but it isn’t enough to provide a lift. The score needs a few sparklers.

 

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The cast sings and acts well. Helene Alter-Dyche puts in a beguiling, if not always comprehensible performance as the grandmother. Scott Danielson terrifies as Gregory, the gruesome father/giant, and Meghan Phillipp seems suitably vacant as Jack’s mother, who metamorphoses into an ugly witch. Jacob Carlson creates a barker full of sinister mystery, really a highlight of the show.

Melissa Imbrogno portrays Greta, a friend of Jack’s who isn’t very well explained, but may live in a similarly abusive household. Jordan Phelps imbues Jack with terror and confusion.

The brightest spots in the whole show, though, are Lauren Michele Lowell’s fanciful costumes, particularly those of Jack and Greta in the second act.

Only sadists enjoy watching this much relentless pain. As important as the musical’s message is, Gawlit and company need to remember that they’re creating entertainment, and take this back to the drawing board to add happiness and hope, not to mention some stand-out songs.

  
  
Rating: ★★
   
   

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REVIEW: The War Plays (Strangetree Group)

  
   

Time travel can be fun!

 

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The Strangetree Group presents
   
The War Plays
   
Written by Emily Schwartz
Directed by Kate Nawrocki
Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport (map)
Through Nov. 20  |  
Tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Go back in time to World War II with Emily Schwartz’s quirky The War Plays, three connected one-acts about love during wartime given an especially charming bridge in The Strangetree Group’s world premiere production.

The War Plays - Strangetree Gourp 002Do get to the theater early — about 20 minutes before the announced curtain time, the cast commences a musical pre-show designed to start your travels back to the 1940s, and it’s well worth your time. Musical Director Jennifer Marschand plays the lead singer in the five-piece Allied Orchestra, performing period numbers such as "G.I. Jive" and "In the Mood" with Scott Cupper, Noah Ginex, Karen Shimmin and Thomas Zeitner. They play throughout the show, providing the segues between each piece. Like many groups that played during the war, they make up in enthusiasm for what they lack in musical talents.

Announcements, costumes and more really convey the flavor of the time. In a wonderful touch as we walked in, I saw one actress drawing a fake stocking seam up the leg of another one.

Once into the theater proper, we get more music (a nice rendition of "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen," among others, and then the first act, my favorite of the three. In this charmer, Delia Baseman and Marty Scanlon play a pair of teenagers who meet in the London Underground during an air raid. She’s an American, looking after her young brother (Michael Mercier), and hates everything about England and every minute of the war; he’s a cheeky young local who finds the Blitz exciting and romantic. You can practically see the sparks fly as they connect.

Next, Patrick Cannon plays a dull-witted and gawky soldier out at a dance hall with a young woman whose company he’s paid for. It’s not entirely clear what’s going on between them — she’s apparently neither a dime-a-dance girl nor a prostitute, but something in between. Cannon is all ungainly awkwardness while Jenifer Henry ranges from petulant disdain to slow tenderness in a sequence that provides a fine contrast to the first act.

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In the longest and least successful of the three plays, Bob Kruse plays a stiffly unhappy soldier invalided home and unable to get rid of an intrusive visiting relative (a debonair Weston Davis) who, to his embarrassment, brings him face-to-face with the lover he’s abandoned (a grim Elizabeth Bagby). While it features the most overt comedy of the trio, this act has the least heart.

Including the pre-show, the whole thing runs about an hour and 15 minutes. The War Plays is a short trip back in time, but a fun one.

  
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

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Photographer: Tyler Core

   
   

Production Cast

Elizabeth Bagby, Delia Baseman, Patrick Cannon, Scott Cupper, Weston Davis, Noah Ginex, Jenifer Henry, Bob Kruse, Jennifer Marschand, Michael Mercier, Marty Scanlon, Karen Shimmin, Thomas Zeitner

   
   

REVIEW: The Rocky Horror Show (NightBlue)

 

Lewd, crude ‘Rocky Horror’ an interactive event

 

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NightBlue Theater presents
    
The Rocky Horror Show
    
Written by Richard O’Brien
Directed by Chris Weise
Musical direction by
Jason Krumweide
at Stage 773*, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
Through Oct. 31  | 
Tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

I am old. How old am I? I am so old that the first time I saw “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” film, nobody threw toast. Or came in costume. Or talked back to the screen. Or did anything but sit there agape.

The next several occasions I viewed the film went just about the same. The rock opera about young Brad Majors and his fiancé Janet Weiss and their remarkable night with the degenerates "Over at the Frankenstein Place" was as yet unsullied by any of audience-participation shtick that accompanies any showing of the film today. And while the film phenomenon was in full swing by the time when, some years later, I first saw a production of the stage musical that had preceded the 1975 cult movie classic, no one in the audience did anything more than wear costumes and dance in the aisles during the closing reprise of "Time Warp."

I confess I enjoyed both film and play better that way. I don’t mind the toast tossing or the newspaper head covering, but I wish that theaters of both types would offer at least a few showings where they tell the peanut gallery to shut up so the rest of us can hear the show.

On the night I saw NightBlue Theater’s current production of The Rocky Horror Show, several audience members kept up such a running litany of interjections that it became difficult to follow the actors. That’s a pity, because many of them are strong performers, both as actors and singers. It’s difficult to do Rocky Horror without hamming it up too much, but Director Chris Weise and cast do an admirable job of keeping things in bounds.

On the other hand, Rocky Horror has two only slightly overlapping sets of fans — I’ll call them the nerds and the vulgarians. The nerds, among whom I count myself, can explain all the references in the opening "Science Fiction Double Feature" (a terrific song, but Usherettes Irene Patino and Carolyn Ewald could barely be heard over the audience in NightBlue’s production) and further can run through all of the science-fiction tropes creator Richard O’Brien so cleverly parodied throughout the musical. The vulgarians are mainly just titillated by the smut and funny underwear and enjoy being part of the show.

NightBlue, which sells $5 participation kits containing toast, confetti, newspapers and all the other accouterments, aims its production firmly toward the second group. Pre-show host Mark Stickney welcomes Rocky Horror "virgins" The%20Rocky%20Horror%20Show563_MainPicturefrom the audience on stage before the outset and engages them in a highly lewd contest as well as encouraging everyone to shout out during the show.

The production combines elements of both the stage musical and the film. The minimalist set and David E. Walters and Laura Zettergren‘s costumes put an emphasis on the prurient. Musical Director Jason Krumweide leads a fine four-piece band, playing keyboards himself with Ken Kazin on drums, Larry Sidlow on guitar and Donn De Santo on bass, although the volume sometimes overwhelms the singers — some of the women, especially, seem to be acoustically challenged, and several actors were using hand mikes, including, most oddly, Paul E. Packer as Rocky Horror, Frank N. Furter’s homemade muscle man. Packer has the right physique for but he lacks the part’s youthful innocence and sings at too deep a pitch.

Stickney goes on to play Eddie — with a great version of "Hot Patootie," including a great dance sequence with Katherine Cunningham, as Columbia — and Dr. Scott. Jennifer Reeves Wilson‘s choreography in other dance numbers, such as "Don’t Dream It Be It," sometimes seems messy.

Smooth-voiced Corey Mills plays an especially wimpy Brad Majors, which works very well against Erin O’Shea’s robust Janet Weiss. Eric Hawrysz makes a stiffer than usual Narrator. Megan Schemmel is a picture-perfect Magenta.

As mad scientist Frank N. Furter, Michael Bounincontro channels Tim Curry for all he’s worth, bringing little originality to the role, but doing a fine mimicry with a powerful voice. Kevin Buswell‘s Riff Raff has more novelty, if only because he starts out emulating Lurch.

If you’re looking for vulgarly raucous Halloween good times, NightBlue provides them, especially if you enjoy performing more than you like listening.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

*except Oct. 31, which will be at The Elbo Room

REVIEW: I Do! I Do! (Light Opera Works)

 

Dated musical extols institution on life-support

 

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Light Opera Works presents
   
I Do!  I Do!
   
Music by Harvey Schmidt
Book and Lyrics by Tom Jones
Directed by Rudy Hogenmiller
Music direction by Roger L. Bingaman and Linda Slein
McGaw Children’s Center Auditorium, Evanston (map)
Through November 14  | 
tickets: $27-$42*  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

It’s not only its historic setting that makes I Do! I Do! seem dated.

Marriage — the till-death-do-us-part style — is more and more passé. Recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau reveals that the number of young adults who’ve never married rose from 35 percent in 2000 to 46 percent in 2009. Among all Americans ages 18 and older, the proportion of those married dropped from 57 percent in 2000 to 52 percent in 2009 — the lowest percentage ever recorded.

Catherine Lord and Larry Adams - Light Opera Works - I Do I Do 006 Of those couples who do marry, at least half eventually divorce. Adultery is rife — the news is full of stories about philandering celebrities and politicians — and some studies estimate that as many as 45 to 55 percent of married people cheat on their spouses.

In times like these, how relevant can a sentimental musical about a 50-year-long marriage be?

Based on Jan de Hartog’s 1951 Broadway hit The Fourposter, Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones’ tender, two-piano, two-character musical, currently in revival by Evanston’s Light Opera Works, follows Michael and Agnes from their wedding at the turn of the 20th century through their five decades of married life. The action mainly revolves around their four-posted marriage bed, although its presence is more symbolic than titillating. We watch them through wedding-night nerves, the birth and rearing of children, squabbles and reconciliations, his brief extramarital affair, her mid-life crisis and their ultimate retirement, a story told mainly in a series of schmaltzy duets punctuated by occasional solos, recitatives and a judicious amount of dialogue.

In 1966, when I Do! I Do! premiered on Broadway, the divorce rate was just 27.4 percent, and roughly 80 percent of U.S. adults were married. You have to wonder what today’s large number of never marrieds, divorced and gays and lesbians are going to get out of this paean to old-fashioned, traditional marriage.

Michael and Agnes no longer represent the universal, generic twosome they once did, even among the married. Few today still follow the male wage earner-female homemaker model at the root of some of this couple’s tiffs. Married life has become much more complex.

 

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Yet although dated in its subject matter, I Do! I Do! remains fresh in its intimate format — a two-person musical was ahead of its time in the 1960s. Schmidt’s sweet and bouncy but repetitive melodies and Jones’ simplistic sentiments — "Marriage is a very good thing, though it’s far from easy" — sometimes verge on cloying, but several of the songs have appeal, notably "I Love My Wife," Michael’s acknowledgement of how unfashionable it is, the upbeat "Love Isn’t Everything" and the comic "Nobody’s Perfect" in Act I and the poignant lament about aging, "Where are the Snows?" and the love song, "My Cup Runneth Over" in Act II. In Light Opera Works’ production, music directors Roger L. Bingaman and Linda Slein double on the dual pianos, occasionally a little muddy but capably over all.

Veteran actors Catherine Lord and Larry Adams make this production worthwhile. Lord’s beautifully timed, wonderfully funny and highly expressive performance as the often-dissatisfied Agnes gives the show some real spice. She acts with every part of her body. Adams’ rich baritone elevates the score.

If you’re looking forward to your wedding, an optimistic young married or about to celebrate your umpty-umpth wedding anniversary, this bittersweet and nostalgic musical may be just the excuse that you’re looking for to have an evening out holding hands with your honey. For many, though, I Do! I Do! describes a life so alien it might as well be science fiction.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

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*age 21and younger are half price.

   
   

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