a theatre, film & pop culture review
Despite overcast skies and that tangible feeling of impending rain, 48th St. on Sunday afternoon exuded happy anticpation with its line of chatty theatergoers and group of smiling producers who milled about with a sense of satisfied ease. The atmosphere inside the Walter Kerr Theatre, however, more closely mirrored the weather outside: only 90 minutes later, emotions would run high and fast, and there would be flowers, many tears, and a wistful farewell speech.
But is anyone really surprised that A Catered Affair, which walked away empty-handed from both the Tonys and the Drama Desk Awards, would close on July 28 after only 116 performances? What many describe as a chamber musical – my favourite vague and most unnecessary categorization since “concept musical” – this melancholy little musical with its understated score and realistic (ie. imperfectly rhymed and not quite eloquent) lyrics by John Bucchino, in his first attempt at the Broadway book musical, is based on an original teleplay by Paddy Chayefsky as filmed by Gore Vidal. Penning the sober book is Broadway favourite Harvey Fierstein who gave himself the only few laughs in the production as the flamboyant live-in uncle of the Hurley family. When Jane (Leslie Kritzer) announces to Ma and Pa Hurley that she wishes to elope with beau Ralph Halloran (an under-utilized Matt Cavenaugh, last seen in the much more interesting Grey Gardens), she offers the only dramatic impetus in a show built solely around the theme of marriage. The Bronx family is scraping by in an apparently loveless 1950s marriage as father Tom attempts to start a new business in a desperate attempt to give his family a better life – all the while dealing with the recent death of their only son in the war and desiring to give their oft-neglected daughter a wedding to remember.
Celebrated director John Doyle, instead of enriching the emotion and intimacy necessary for such a small musical, offers sparse and rather cold staging. Presumably to compliment the rather thin book and score, Doyle places gossiping housewives on various flats representing apartment levels (David Gallo’s set is reminiscent of a more bare bones West Side Story fire escape), and the actors wander back and forth across only a small portion of the stage. It appears that without instruments in hand, Mr. Doyle, famous (notorious, perhaps?) for his use of actor-musicians in the recent revivals of Sweeney Todd and Company, was unable to manipulate the large space to create a necessary intimacy. As it was, the large Broadway house swallowed the Hurleys whole; this small and curious musical, like so many others in past years, suffered largely because it simply did not belong on the Great White Way.
Had Affair been placed in a smaller space, with audience and actors in closer connection, it may have effectively pulled spectators into the emotional undercurrents of the show, despite the understated dialogue and the score that never soars to emotional heights or even offers a standard Broadway melody to hum along to. Not that Bucchino should be limited by such expectations: the score’s conceit of offering a constant undercurrent to the show (much dialogue is underscored) that allows the performers to weave out of spoken, and into sung, dialogue is an interesting and certainly a valid one for a show in which the characters are so ordinary and emotionally reserved that they would never, ever sing. While this quiet and rather unmelodic score suits the conservative Hurleys, it does not, however, offer an inspired or cathartic evening at the theatre.
Fortunately for Mr. Bucchino, Affair was lucky enough to gather the extraordinary talents of Tom Wopat as Tom Hurely and Faith Prince as his wife, Aggie. While the score may deny the Hurleys the dramatic motivation and emotional release they so achingly need, Wopat and Prince rise above the constraints of the show and offer audiences performances filled with pain, longing, bitterness, and defeat. It is not when Tom angrily retorts to his wife in song, “I Stayed,” that we recognize and actuallyfel his suffering, but in the tortured look he gives her when she states that their marriage is and has always been loveless. And it is not when Aggie offers her “Vision” of a perfect wedding that we truly see what she has sacrificed and denied herself all of these years; it is when Prince is left sitting in a chair, disconsolately staring off into an empty room that we feel the deep sadness that is within her character. Musical scores need not heighten emotions nor cause us to leave the theatre humming a happy tune, but their selection as a method of storytelling should be of a more inspired reason: if the characters are not emotionally capable of singing, as Bucchino’s constant spoken/sung and subdued score implies, why set their story to music at all? Not a rhetorical question at all, but perhaps one that writers and producers alike should more thoughtfully consider when taking on such a project.
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Outside, a few persistent raindrops fought to break through the thick air surrounding the Walter Kerr. Inside, during their final curtain call, the cast of A Catered Affair, after ninety straight minutes of restrained emotion, was finally allowed a moment of release.
And the rain felt good.