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Chicago by John Olson

A Catered Affair
Porchlight Music Theatre

Also see John's reviews of South Pacific, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Show Boat

A Catered Affair
Jerry O'Boyle and Rebecca Finnegan
It seems improbable that a 1953 television play coming from a school of drama so gritty and realistic that it was called "kitchen sink drama" would be the basis for a musical. Musicals are literally anti-realistic in that characters frequently express themselves through song. When the emotions are as intense as the ones in A Catered Affair, based on the 1956 screenplay by Gore Vidal, an adaptation of a 1955 teleplay by Paddy Chayefsky, it's logical to express them through song. This musical version with book by Harvey Fierstein and music and lyrics by John Bucchino keeps the focus on the characters and situation, with all the songs completely integrated into the plot, never stopping for the luxury of a production number or simple feel-good song.

The story concerns a family living in the South Bronx in 1953 who has just lost their only son in the Korean War and is about to "lose" their only daughter to marriage. The girl, Janey (Kelly Davis Wilson), and her intended, Ralph (Jim DeSelm), want to elope, but family pressures cause the parents to persuade them to agree to a big wedding, one funded by the proceeds of an insurance payment that could be put to better use in the financially strapped family. In ninety-some minutes, many relationships and themes are explored: the strained marriage between Janey's parents, Aggie (Rebecca Finnegan) and Tom (Craig Spidle); the awkward relationship with the "confirmed bachelor" Uncle Winston (Jerry O'Boyle) who shares their apartment; and the enormous pressures—internal and external—to throw a big, financially draining wedding. A Catered Affair, though it ultimately comes down on one side of the argument, effectively makes the case for both sides: showing the very real emotional benefits of celebrating an important event in grand fashion with friends and family, while still acknowledging the costs and tradeoffs of such an extravagant expenditure among those who can't really afford it.

I'm not entirely sure how much the music adds to the piece. Bucchino's score is pleasant on a first listening, but complex enough to required repeated exposure to appreciate more fully. The songs don't follow traditional show tune formats and don't really lodge themselves in the ear the first time through. It may be credit enough to say that the piece as a whole kept me engaged with the characters and the issues, and the songs are entirely in the service of that story.

Much credit is also due to the superb cast and performances Porchlight and director Nick Bowling have brought to the piece, without a weak link in the group. It's a treat to see Rebecca Finnegan again in a lead at Porchlight. Her Aggie is earthy and complex, determined yet not insensitive to the needs and feelings of others; strong yet fearful. She see this moment as one of great urgency. It's a last chance to give her daughter something of value, and a moment of challenge as she and husband Tom become empty nesters. She's the hub of all the competing needs and wants in the story, and she fights valiantly to be in control and achieve the best outcome. Her Tom is Craig Spidle, the fine actor who is Chicago's go-to guy for middle-aged everymen. Here he does a slow-burning, realistic variation on a Ralph Kramden-like guy, and who knew he was such a good singer?

The bachelor uncle, played by Fierstein in the show's Broadway production, is given a complex and fascinating portrayal by O'Boyle. A big and funny man (he's played Edna in Hairspray), O'Boyle gives Winston equal measures of charm and self—pity. Fierstein has written the character to be more explicitly, though still subtly, gay and O'Boyle deftly shows Winston's loneliness from being a none-too-well closeted man in an era less accepting of gays than the present. As the young lovers, Wilson gives Janey a spunky independence, choosing not to resent the supposed neglect from her parents but ready to move on with her life; and Jim DeSelm creates a Ralph who is as strong as she, patient to a point with both sets of parents, but equally ready to set limits. Strong character work is also provided by Larry Baldacci and Anne Sheridan Smith as Ralph's parents, who, along with Lauren Villegas, Caron Buinis, and Brittani Arlandis Green, take dual roles as neighbors, friends and wedding service suppliers.

Bowling has brought together some of Chicago's top creative talent for this production. The South Bronx setting is created by Brian Sidney Bembridge as an earth-toned two-story row house, and Bill Morey's costumes perfectly capture the early 1950s period and lower-middle class milieu. Doug Peck has provided the musical direction for the uniformly fine singing and a most elegant sounding orchestra of five strings, piano, and a reed player.

It's rare for a musical to communicate this much depth of character, and deliver so solidly on the "theatre" part of "musical theatre." The opportunity to see this much talent on and off stage in the service of such an ambitious and focused musical drama is a special chance to explore the boundaries of the genre.

A Catered Affair will play at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago, through April 1, 2012. For tickets, visit stage773.com or call 773-327-5252.


Photo: Brandon Dahlquist

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-- John Olson



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