April 19, 2008

Regrets Only for “A Catered Affair”

My regret is that I didn’t like the new musical A Catered Affair more. Its pedigree seemed to promise such great things. The story about a blue collar Bronx couple who decide to throw their daughter a big wedding that she doesn’t want and they can’t afford is based on “The Catered Affair,” a drama the great Paddy Chayefsky wrote for "The Philco Television Playhouse" back in 1955 at the height of The Golden Age of TV. Gore Vidal adapted it for a movie the next year that starred Ernest Borgnine, fresh off his Academy Award-winning portrayal in "Marty", as the taxi driver dad; Bette Davis as his unhappy wife and Debbie Reynolds as their daughter. (My unendingly resourceful friend Bill discovered that Turner Classic Movies is running that version on its On Demand channel through mid-May).

The book for the new musical is written by Harvey Fierstein, a longtime fan of the movie and a four-time Tony winner including for writing Torch Song Trilogy and the book for La Cage aux Folles; and the music is by John Bucchino, the acclaimed cabaret performer and songwriter whose work has been performed by such singers as Deborah Voigt, Liza Minnelli and Audra McDonald, who has become a virtual one-woman bandwagon for the post-Sondheim generation of show composers. The cast is lead by Faith Prince, turning in a sensationally moving performance as the mother; Tom Wopat, almost as good as the father; Leslie Kritzer, a standout as one of the original sorority sister’s in Legally Blonde, as the daughter; and Fierstein, who expanded the part of the family’s bachelor uncle for himself, turning the character from a drunk lady's man into a gay guy. And yet, this may have been the most dour wedding since Miss Havisham got left with her molding cake in Dicken’s “Great Expectations”.

I suppose expectations might be my problem here too. The show’s advertising doesn’t help. Its logo centers around a smiling bridal couple enjoying their first dance. The Catered Affair website (click here to visit) includes a chatty blog by Fierstein, invites readers to write in with their own wedding stories and promotes a “Mother Of The Bridal Shower” that offers ticket holders discounts for lunch at Tavern on the Green and a special Wedding Cupcake at one of the Cupcake Cafés. It all makes the show sound like it’s fun but it isn’t.

The critics have lined up on both sides of the aisle. “This is the saddest show about a wedding that I ever saw. And I can't imagine anybody who would want to see it,” wrote The Journal News’ Jacques le Sourd. "A Catered Affair demands serious attention from an audience, but the effort is worth it," declared the AP’s Michael Kuchwara. The show won 7 San Diego Theatre Critics Circle Awards, including Outstanding New Musical, during its pre-Broadway run there last fall.

I have to say that I’m sitting in the naysayers pew on this one. Musicals obviously don’t have to be light and frothy (as regular readers know, my all time favorite is Sweeney Todd) but they don’t have to be unrelentingly grim either (both Grey Gardens and Spring Awakening deal with some pretty depressing stuff but still manage to allow you a few chuckles). The small amount of humor in A Catered Affair revolves around the anachronistic jokes Fierstein has written for the uncle, who in this version is constantly making “Queer Eye”-style quips at a time when a gay man in a working class family like his would have been burrowing into the closet or leaving home.

And the one thing that every successful musical needs is memorable music. It doesn’t necessarily have to be tunes that you’re humming when you leave the theater (I couldn’t hum the music from Passing Strange if you paid me and yet it fuels that show). There are 16 numbers in A Catered Affair. They’re pleasant but they’re also all so similar that I actually came home thinking there had only been about five. And none of them gave you anything to celebrate.

A Catered Affair runs just 90 intermissionless minutes. Some folks are calling it a chamber musical (minimalism in one way or the other seems to be a trademark of director John Doyle, who had actors playing their own instruments in the recent revivals of Sweeney Todd and Company). And those fans, like my blog colleague Chris at Everything I Know I Learned from Musicals, are calling the show charming. The tickets, however, are full symphony-priced. And my frequent theatergoing companion Bill had a different adjective for it. “Lugubrious,” he said as we walked to the subway after the show. I, with much regret, nodded in total agreement.

1 comment:

dylan said...

Yes, this was an odd little musical to be sure. I remember thinking that the music was beautiful at the time, in a somber sort of way, though after leaving the theatre I couldn't remember even one faint melody. And I didn't understand why Harvey's character stood around in so many scenes where he had no place. Did he symbolize something I wasn't seeing? I will say that the acting was great but, overall, this was a miss.