Directed by Jac Adler
Music Director - Vonda K. Bowling
Set Design - from a concept by Jac Adler
Lighting Design - Sam Nance
Costume Design - Michael Robinson
Piano/Conductor - Vonda K. Bowling
Wind Synth - Michael Dill
Flute/Clarinet/Sax - Ellen Kaner
Bass - Peggy Honea
Percussion - Mick McNicholas
Myra - Madelyn Brene
Milkman/Officer/Courthouse Clerk - Randy Eppes
Tom - Sonny Franks
Janey - Bailey Lawrence
Alice/Dress Saleswoman - Jill Lightfoot
Mrs. Halloran/Pasha - Delynda Johnson Moravec
Dolores/Caterer - Kelley Murphey
Mr. Halloran/Sam - Neil Rogers
Aggie - Sally Soldo
Winston - Christopher Wagley
Ralph - Brandon Wilhelm
Reviewed Performance 10/17/2011
Reviewed by Clyde Berry, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Every now and then there is a hidden gem in the musical world, a not often produced piece that upon viewing makes one wonder why the work doesn't get a better production history. So many factors influence whether a piece will make it or not, and there are many near misses that get lost along the way behind bigger budget, bigger name pieces that often shouldn't get the attention they receive.
John Bucchino is not likely to be a recognizable name to the average theater goer; however he has rubbed elbows with enough folks who have sung his assorted songs to have garnered attention through his thoughtful works. Lots of names have collaborated with him, and he has worked in various mediums with varying levels of success. It was his collaboration with Harvey Fierstein that really brought his name to larger attention with their adaptation of the 1956 Gore Vidal novel (and subsequent television adaptation) into a musical. Fierstein is a multi Tony award winning performer and writer, and together the two penned a thoughtful and intriguing piece of theater.
The structure of the piece is layered and interesting, with a multiple-storyline and multi-generational cast of characters. There is the young couple, the parents, and the neighbors who are a sort of Greek chorus and ensemble for smaller parts. This is not a musical in the sense of large dance numbers but something more sophisticated, where the emotional stakes are higher, and there is no verse-chorus structure. The music underlies the emotional journey and relationships more strongly, and conversations are actually songs, without rhymes. Think Sondheim without the wordplay.
There's also nothing that will be sung on the car ride home. While this may not sound like an appealing type of piece, it actually works surprisingly well, and creates a thoughtful, heartfelt piece that is executed by a talented cast.
The story concerns the young lovers Janey and Ralph who have decided it is time to marry, based on the ability to do it quickly, quietly, and take a honeymoon built into a cross-country errand for friends. Meanwhile Janey's father has the opportunity to buy out a business partner with the entirety of the family savings and a check they received from the loss of their favored child, a son who died in the Korean War.
As the kids announce the wedding intentions and in-laws meet, things escalate from a simple event to a large and expense one. Motives are questioned as everyone struggles between balancing their own needs and budgets best.
There are many lovely parallels in the piece - partnerships between spouses and business associates, commitments between lovers and family, and the complexities are portrayed lovingly and simply in the small and moving orchestra. To discuss things further will reveal spoilers and ruin the pleasant and moving journey.
Jac Adler, who directed and conceived the set, has kept the focus wisely on the characters. The set is simplistic, with brick brownstone facades on opposite corners of the in-the-round space at Theatre Three. Simple paint establishes location without trying to affect realism. Similarly, the staging is very natural; characters move about to accomplish chores while carrying on conversations. The look is a very smooth one and works best when Alder doesn't try to stage a musical.
An occasional narrative bit takes place on the side corners, and the few scene shifts of furniture happen unobtrusively. The light design uses basic area isolation effectively. Michael Robinson's costumes fit the actors well, are period appropriate and realistic unaffected choices. The simplicity allows for honesty from the characters that gives them credibility and a grounded quality that pulls the audience in quickly. Also, the lack of squawky microphones adds an authenticity to the performances.
As the kids, Janey and Ralph, Bailey Lawrence and Brandon Wilhelm begin with a bedroom scene that is cute and humorous. They establish their personalities quickly and easily. The only time things are problematic is when they are staged into the lover's pose during duets. The playfulness between them leaves and the emotions become forced and disjointed. The first scene is their best but the capable actors seem to lose their physical intimacy and playfulness in all the remaining scenes.
Touches are awkward, and they no longer seem like a couple. Lawrence is the stronger singer of the two but then Wilhelm doesn't have much to sing. Similarly "One White Dress", a character transition song for Janey, doesn't dramatically do what it should. Janey, who has been the driving force for a small, municipal wedding suddenly becomes gung-ho for a big ceremony, but the staging and scene doesn't show why she suddenly changes her mind. It might be interesting to see how the younger couple would fare if they had the same treatment as the adults.
As the ensemble, Delynda Johnson Moravec, Kelley Murphy, and Jill Lightfoot are meant to create the stereotypical Bronx neighborhood biddies, but accents are affected and the diversity is forced. While the energy is good, the characters are a bit forced and flat; although they advance the plot the way they are supposed to do. All the ladies fare better in their featured roles, and succeed in created richer characters.
Lightfoot's Dress Saleswoman is engaging in her shtick, and has the professional, curt attitude of a woman who has dealt with meddling parents who overcomplicate a function. Likewise, Moravec's Mrs. Halloran is fun and entertaining.
As Winston, the gay uncle role originally played by Fierstein himself, Christopher Wagley finds an uneven balance. He succeeds in making the part his own, and avoids the traps that are easy to fall into in a role that so clearly has the author's fingerprints. What is inconsistent is the sharpness of the quips, and the too frequent wink at the audience. Still, Wagley has heart, and the dramatic moments succeed where the narrations do not. But then, the script doesn't really help him much there either. He smartly avoids the feyness of type, something that would have likely been a practiced habit for Winston, and therefore avoids "playing gay" as the only aspect of the character.
Neil Rogers creates two very different and successful characters. First Sam, the business partner to Tom the father, is the Everyman he should be. Mr. Halloran is the obnoxious over-the-top jerk, the stereotypical in-law to fear. While both these characters would do well in a sitcom, the opposites are interesting, and Rogers shows his versatility.
In multiple roles, Randy Frank Eppes serves well as an ensemble member, but a scene in which he delivers the flag, medals, and check from the military to the bereaved parents is strained and unbelievable. Eppes delivers lines awkwardly, and the clunky scene disrupts the flow of the act.
The performances of Sonny Franks, and Sally Soldo in particular are worth the admission. The two create a thoroughly believable seasoned married couple.
Their squabbles, jabs and confessions, as well as the observation of their marital politics, are intriguing and engaging. Both make the songs feel natural, logical and beautiful - no easy feat. Each has several moments to shine, and when their characters have peak emotional moments, and realizations set in, the journey for the audience is gripping. The dynamic of this couple is the center of the story as each tries to accomplish something without including the other. When tempers flare and hearts are bared, a powerful scene is created.
A Catered Affair has three other productions slated in the next few months, but none will likely have the polish and heart of the one at Theatre Three.
A CATERED AFFAIR
Theatre Three, 2800 Routh Street, Dallas, TX 75201
Through November 12th, 2011
Regular Performances are Thursdays & Sundays at 7:30 pm,
Fridays & Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sunday matinees at 2:30pm.
Extra performances are Wednesday Nov. 9th at 2:00 pm, and Saturday November 12th at 2:30 pm.
Ticket Prices are $10-$50. Tickets may be purchased by calling the Theatre 3 box office at 214-871-3300, option #1, or go online to www.theatre3dallas.com