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Cast provides character for underwritten ‘I Do, I Do’

Let’s start with salad: cold and crisp, but boring and ordinary. The dressing needed lift.

The stuffed chicken, brown throughout, wasn’t much better. Dessert, a pink strawberry whip, was medicinal.

It’s hard to divorce these scenes from this evening’s narrative arc. You just can’t take dinner out of dinner theater. Seeing as this is a theater review and not a food critique, I’ll leave the culinary notes there. But it’s all the same: drama needs depth, life needs range, the chicken needs salt.

Which brings us to “I Do, I Do,” the Lancaster Opera House production now serving at Ripa’s, a nearby family owned Italian restaurant and banquet center. The Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt musical chronicles a couple’s 50-year marriage, from their wedding night to practically their death bed. The original production debuted on Broadway in 1966, a star vehicle for Mary Martin and Robert Preston.

The story begins just before the turn of the 20th century, a time when patriarchal marriage implied ownership over romance, and expectation over impulse. We open on Michael and Agnes walking down the aisle, the lucky ducks, before retiring to the matrimonial boudoir, where their reluctance to reveal even a forearm of skin registers as one of many red flags.

There are plenty of generational, sexual and cultural gaps to note, about what used to constitute marriage and what today defines it. Jones and Schmidt’s musical is an adaptation of Jan de Hartog’s 1951 play, “The Fourposter,” which begins in the late 19th century. It’s enough to suffocate you.

It helps to view this as a time capsule, a dusty metal diorama of people you can’t possibly understand but still identify with. Some things don’t change: the honeymoon always ends, kids are always expensive, fatigue always creeps. I’ll forgive, with both reluctance and respect, the ways in which men and women used to accept each other, and the ways in which children — invisible in this two-hander, its own metaphor — inherited these assumptions. I can’t imagine that any or all of these criticisms were at play in 1966, with Martin and Preston entertainingly at the helm. But in 2016, it’s sanitizing to take in this history when not totally uncomfortable to ingest.

At a few points, I felt the ghostly complements of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” and Jason Robert Brown’s “The Last Five Years,” two (much better) musicals that explore personal identifies in marriage with much more respect for the individuals at play.

Our cast helps us swallow it all, thank goodness. These characters are underwritten, the averages of two genders over a vast, vague stretch of time. They desperately need character. David Bondrow and Kim Piazza do their very best to provide.

Bondrow is a unique talent in town, a young man with the disposition of a much older soul. Others could have handled Michael, but Bondrow imbues him with a wink and dash that just makes you smile. He can sing a standard with the best of them, and soft-shoe you to sleep — a total lullaby.

Piazza gives Agnes some much-needed spunk. She plays more contemporary than Bondrow, but this helps us a little bit. She walks Agnes to the fourth wall — which, let’s be honest, was knocked to the parquet dance floor as soon as salad was served — more than a few times. It’s as if Agnes wants to see if we can see her. Michael certainly can’t, or doesn’t want to. Piazza plays these vulnerable moments dramatically, sometimes too much, but it’s an important element of her performance regardless.

A six-member pit ensemble gives rare lift to Schmidt’s score. It’s not often you hear these songs, like the standard “My Cup Runneth Over,” performed live with real woodwinds and jazzy percussion. It’s a nice touch, warmly felt alongside Bondrow and Piazza’s own soulful embellishments. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to make this evening’s marriage work. Some recipes aren’t fool-proof.

Theater review

“I Do, I Do”

2.5 stars (out of four)

Dinner theater presented by Lancaster Opera House through Feb. 21 in Ripa’s, 4218 Walden Ave., Lancaster. Tickets are $48 (including dinner, dessert, coffee and tea, tax and gratuity) and must be purchased in advance at the Lancaster Opera House box office; tickets are not available at the door. For info, visit lancopera.org or call 683-1776.

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