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A CurtainUp Review
A Catered Affair
By Elyse Sommer
review continues below
Harvey Fierstein has used both the original teleplay and film script to turn this Bronx family tale into a musical that hasn't lost its television sized aura. While it's got plenty of songs (14 plus 2 reprises), and those songs by John Bucchino are quite lovely and with appealing lyrics (also by Bucchino), the ninety-minute intermissionless show feels more like a play with music than a musical. Nothing wrong with that, as long as you don't expect big production numbers and bouncy show stoppers that you'll be whistling the next day. Nor should you look for the performers to whip out instruments to accompany their singing just because the director is John Doyle who pioneered this actor-musician style with Company and Sweeny Todd
What A Catered Affair, which began life at San Diego's Old Globe Theater, does have is a small story with a big heart, songs that are so subtly woven into the dialogue that you hardly notice the transitions from the spoken to sung and back to spoken words—and, Faith Prince! As the unhappy, uptight Aggie Hurley, Prince in just one outfit (a wonderfully frumpy dress and Hoover apron courtesy of Ann Hould-Ward) once again proves that she's a star; and Doyle's direction of her and the entire cast, gives new meaning to unshowy understatement, with songs ending in incredibly long pauses that resonate with a good deal of emotional power.
With a more recently minted Broadway baby, Leslie (Legally Blonde) Kritzer, to play Aggie's daughter Janey, and Fierstein having written himself into the story as a gay Uncle Winston, Prince's a star is reborn performance is not this show's only performance asset. Kritzer has enough verve to make us accept her somewhat too facile caving in to the family's upending her plans for a hasty, unfussy City Hall marriage. Fierstein is a sufficiently charismatic stage personality to overcome an initial resistance to his characterization of the bachelor uncle and his more gravelly than ever sprech-singing. Nevertheless, this Uncle does take some getting used to, as does the quiet slice of life musical story telling.
The Fierstein script sticks pretty closely to the original exploration of the simmering tensions in the Hurley family dynamic that are kicked up by daughter Janey's impending marriage. Besides rewriting the bachelor uncle's role to fit his own persona, Fierstein has started things off with the tragedy of a son killed in Korea. He has also heightened the sense of the shifting social patterns between the post-depression period and the boomer generation era. The Hurleys live in a period that's a launching pad for low income families' upward mobility as indicated by Tom Hurley's (Tom Wopat) contemplating owning instead of leasing his taxi medallion.
The tragedy spawned by the son's death early on in the play naturally adds to this beeing a rather downbeat musical, but it also adds plausibility to Janey's sudden decision to give in to her boyfriend Ralph's desire to legitimize an affair which could easily end up as a reprise of her mother's shotgun marriage. With the brother to whom she's always played second fiddle a war hero, Janey, who's been afraid to commit to married life, decides that anything is "cooler than living at home" and that "the only thing worse than spending the first part of my life in the shadow of my perfect brother would be spending another day in the shadow of my perfect dead brother."
Though Janey's plan to tie the knot like a no-nonsense partnership agreement (summed up musically in "Parnters,") is predictably jettisoned when the Hurleys and Hallorans meet for a celebratory dinner in the Hurley apartment, this is not a musical replay of the comic A Father of the Bride. Janey's giving in to her mother's insistence on giving her a wedding does expand amusingly, but this is not really about a wedding party that gets out of hand but about the smouldering regrets, guilt feelings and family traumas that this celebratory event ignites.
While the staging is more detailed than Doyle's previous musicals, David Gallo has kept things simple and functional, with a background of Bronx walkup apartment houses subtly lit by Brian MacDevitt and beautifully detailed with Zachary Borovay's projections. Furnishings for the interiors rolled out as needed. The projections create windows for a chorus of neighbors (Lori Wilner, Kristine Zbornik and Heather MacRae). Too bad they only get one song ("Women Chatter") though Doyle, in keeping with the show's chamber musical scale, gives each a chance to leave her window sill to play another role.
Unfortunately, the three gossipy ladies aren't the only case of underutilizing the actors cast to play them. The show's almost over by the time Tom Wopat explodes into " I Stayed." It's a moving number but it too doesn't really generate a "Wow, that was worth waiting for." Also underused is Matt Cavenaugh as Janey's boy friend and Lori Wilner and Philip Hoffman as his parents. They don't have a single song, unless you count Hoffman in his second role as Tom's taxi driving partner in their appealing counterpoint to Ralph and Janey's "Partners").
Without a marquee boasting actors and a director associated with Broadway, this quiet little period piece might have been more appropriately mounted in an Off-Broadway theater. At the Walter Kerr A Catered Affair is likely to parallel Janey's struggle. As she must escape the shadow of her "perfect brother," so A Catered Affair will have to struggle from beneath the shadow of the glitzier and more perfect shows. This prompts a concluding caveat: A Catered Affair is about a family but it's not a show for the whole family. While I saw children as young as eight and nine having a grand time at Gypsy and South Pacific, A Catered Affair is not for this age group. It's also likely to disappoint teens counting on Kritzer à la Legally Blonde.
*You can hear Harvey sing You Tube
Try onlineseats.com for great seats to
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Leonard Maltin's 2008 Movie Guide