Humor, yes, but humanity? That's rare in a Broadway musical. When it does come along - as it did last night, when "A Catered Affair" opened at the Walter Kerr - hug it to your heart.
Under John Doyle's expert, discreet direction, it emerges less like a musical and more like a play with music: lovely, urban chamber music. But you won't come out humming the tunes, or even the scenery.
You'll come out humming the characters.
Harvey Fierstein's book is nominally based on Gore Vidal's screenplay for the 1956 movie, which in turn was taken from Paddy Chayefsky's teleplay, presumably as a starring vehicle for Ernest Borgnine.
But it's Chayefsky's spirit that dominates the scene, and Fierstein has captured his 1950s, working-class milieu to perfection.
This Bronx tale, with its interlocking, underlining and quietly beautiful music and lyrics by John Bucchino, skims along the edge of sentimentality to find honest sentiment in this story of a young soldier's death, a wedding and a taxi.
As it starts, the soldier's parents, Aggie (Faith Prince) and Tom (Tom Wopat), a taxi driver, have just received their country's thanks: a folded flag and a small government check.
Their daughter Janey (Leslie Kritzer) has had a bit of luck, though: the chance to wed her boyfriend, Ralph (Matt Cavenaugh), and a free honeymoon, ferrying a friend's car to California.
Tom also has an opportunity. The taxi owner is ready to sell it to him and his partner, making them owner-drivers instead of hired hands. The money he's got together is enough to seal the deal.
And then there's Janey's wedding. Her wish is that it be small - just the bride and groom, the four parents and a matron of honor. Not even Winston (Fierstein himself, and happily, always himself), Aggie's bachelor brother, who sleeps on a pullout bed in their living room, is invited.
Aggie has other plans. Determined to give her daughter the wedding she never had, she plans a catered affair that keeps getting bigger. "A life savings flushed down the drain," Tom moans, "to feed dinner to a bunch of strangers."
Fierstein has built up his role as the uncle, played by Barry Fitzgerald in the movie (only Fierstein's uncle is gay), and anytime he can find a chance to climb up onto that stage with a grin and a growl is fine with me.
Still, though he's as explosively expansive as ever, he plays second fiddle to Prince and Wopat.
They embody the pinch of the chronic struggle not to be poor, to keep just a bit ahead of whatever game it is the world is playing. Grayness is eating their lives, leaving Aggie sullen and Tom defeatedly disinterested.
Both reveal themselves in one moment of abandoned truth - Aggie as she watches her daughter try on a wedding gown, and Tom, in their kitchen, trying with a fierce and uncontrollable anger to make sense of a grinding life.
These are not musical- comedy stereotypes - these are people. So is Kritzer's marvelously layered Janey, as a working-class daughter suddenly presented with an image of glamour in a never-to-be-forgotten wedding.
This is no run-of-the-mill Broadway musical - there's no chorus, no dancing. Just evocative music (perfectly orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick) interwoven with spoken dialogue, an authentically devised set by David Gallo and Ann Hould-Ward's brilliantly drab costumes.
It's simply a musical with an honest heart, and that's enough.
There aren’t a lot of laughs in “A Catered Affair,” the undramatic new musical drama of disappointed lives in the age of Eisenhower, which opened Thursday night at the Walter Kerr Theater. But at least one line has the audience roaring. That’s when a chipper, big-smiling woman walks over to a group of the show’s main characters and says, “I know a fun family when I see one.”
Ha ha. You see, the whole point of the Bronx tenement clan portrayed in this scrupulously acted show, which features a book by Harvey Fierstein and songs by John Bucchino, is that these people don’t know how to have fun. Their lives have been so thwarted by sacrifice and compromise and hard times that joy, excitement, even mild contentment are beyond their grasp.
They don’t, in other words, have an awful lot to sing about. And it’s a matter of honor to “A Catered Affair,” based on a Paddy Chayefsky television drama and the 1956 movie it inspired, that it never lets its repressed characters cut loose. This despite having top-flight stars known to cut loose in exhilarating style on Broadway — Faith Prince, Tom Wopat and Mr. Fierstein — and, in John Doyle, a director who brought awakening emotional intensity to the recent revivals of “Sweeney Todd” and “Company.”
A short (90 minutes) but slow depiction of the family-fracturing pressures of planning an expensive wedding, “A Catered Affair” is so low key that it often seems to sink below stage level. From Mr. Bucchino’s trickling, self-effacing score to the tight-lipped stoicism of its leading performances, from David Gallo’s tidy tenement-scape set to Zachary Borovay’s tentative photographic projections, this show is all pale, tasteful understatement that seems to be apologizing for asking for your attention. (Well, except for Mr. Fierstein’s character, but you could have guessed that.)
You have to give its creators credit for sticking to their muffled guns in a season when new musicals like “In the Heights” and “Passing Strange” are awash in old-fashioned sentimentality. This is all the more remarkable considering that the movie on which “A Catered Affair” is based (called “The Catered Affair,” for the record), adapted from Chayefsky’s teleplay by Gore Vidal, was a Kleenex soaker.
The film was capitalizing on the vogue for earnest “little people” stories that took off when Chayefsky’s “Marty” (1955) dominated the Oscars. That movie’s star, Ernest Borgnine, was also in “The Catered Affair,” playing Tom Hurley, a tired-out taxi driver, opposite Bette Davis as Aggie, his clamped-down wife.
This couple’s existence was supposed to be dishwater gray. But the combustible presence of Davis, a grande dame slumming, guaranteed that there were at least a few stinging soap bubbles in the kitchen sink.
Bubbles are a no-no in the musical version. The script hews to the film’s central story of the tensions between Tom the cabbie (Mr. Wopat) and Aggie (Ms. Prince) over whether to give a fancy wedding for their daughter, Janey (Leslie Kritzer, in the Debbie Reynolds part) and her fiancé, Ralph (Matt Cavenaugh).
The musical departs from the film in one other significant way. The love that dared not speak its name in the 1950s has been given a voice, and that voice is an immediately identifiable canine-feline blend of a growl and a purr. Mr. Fierstein has rewritten the role of Aggie’s brother, who shares the family’s cramped apartment, changing him from a twinkling Irishman (Barry Fitzgerald in the movie, natch) to a twinkling homosexual.
Well, maybe twinkling is the wrong word. As played by Mr. Fierstein, Uncle Winston is occasionally witty but more often sad and snarly, given to barking admonitions to an uptight world unready to accept him and his (unseen) partner.
“I have broken the vows of silence,” Winston says in the requisite disastrous meet-the-potential-in-laws dinner party scene. He goes on to sing: “Immediate family can have such narrow minds/You’d think their heads were up their behinds.”
Such behavior throws Ralph’s parents (Lori Wilner and Philip Hoffman) for a loop — or at least as far as I could tell. No one is given to extreme reactions in “A Catered Affair,” except Uncle Winston and the gossiping chorus of tenement housewives (Ms. Wilner, Heather Mac Rae and Kristine Zbornik) who lean out their windows in a conceit that was stale even in the mid-1950s.
Ms. Prince, best known for her madcap musical turns in revivals of “Guys and Dolls” and “Bells Are Ringing,” scrubs down to raw-skinned plainness here. Her performance is tight, disciplined and at times quite affecting, never more so than when Aggie looks silently at some distant horizon of missed opportunities. (Winston provides an obtrusive caption for these moments in an 11 o’clock song about a roller coaster that includes the lyrics, “You paid your money, took the ride, but missed the view.”)
The appealing Ms. Kritzer (a standout in “Legally Blonde”) and Mr. Cavenaugh sink with grace into the show’s dominant tone of self-negation. Mr. Wopat, as always, is very good, and he delivers Tom’s big anthem of regrets, “I Stayed,” with skillfully subdued force.
Really, though, you can’t talk about big numbers here, because big, in any sense, is antithetical to the heart and structure of the show. Much of Mr. Bucchino’s score is styled as extended recitative, with melodies that suggest the naturally limited range of muted conversation. Even melodic ballads and love duets tend to trail off into wistful silence.
“Resigning oneself to small is sad,” Winston says when he hears of Janey and Ralph’s original plan to have a modest wedding.
“Requesting it is tragic.” Small can be beautiful on Broadway, though. Witness Mr. Doyle’s no-frills “Sweeney Todd” and “Company.”
But in musicals there has to be some largesse — of spirit, of style, of originality — to make an audience care about those singing strangers onstage. In “A Catered Affair” people are seldom big enough to pin your feelings on.
As pop culture grows coarser and snarkier by the minute, a quiet revolution is taking place on Broadway.
With new revivals of classics such as Gypsy and South Pacific and original shows as diverse as last season's Spring Awakening and Grey Gardens and this year's Passing Strange and In the Heights, writers and directors are rejecting the glib satire and empty bombast that have cheapened commercial musical theater in recent decades.
A Catered Affair (* * * out of four), which opened Thursday at the Walter Kerr Theatre, shares with those musicals an emphasis on characters drawn with passion and compassion, and handled with that most quaint of virtues: dignity.
Based on a 1956 film written by Gore Vidal and a teleplay by Paddy Chayefsky, Affair focuses on Aggie and Tom Hurley, a middle-aged, working-class couple whose only son and favored child has just died serving in the Korean War. When their daughter, Janey, abruptly decides to run off and marry her longtime beau, Aggie's grief is compounded by guilt, and she is forced to confront questions and doubts stemming from her own past.
Harvey Fierstein, who co-stars as Winston, Aggie's big-hearted brother, has fashioned a witty, wise, moving script. John Bucchino's score is similarly thoughtful and heartfelt, though less accessible. Like several critically admired contemporary composers, Bucchino aspires to Stephen Sondheim's sophistication and emotional intensity but lacks his melodic intuition. With a few exceptions, notably the bittersweet ballad Don't Ever Stop Saying I Love You, the songs in Affair evoke well-crafted recitative that never quite blooms into arias.
But if Bucchino's tunes are structurally less than memorable, they seldom feel contrived within the framework of the show. That's thanks in part to director John Doyle, best known for his stark interpretations of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd and Company. In those productions, the actors played their own instruments; here, they use only their voices, reinforcing the philosophy underlying Doyle's technique: In musicals, songs are a form of heightened expression that should help sustain a story rather than merely embellish it.
Doyle, Bucchino and Fierstein have a fine interpreter in Faith Prince, whose Aggie emerges as a sort of antithesis to Gypsy's Mama Rose. Where Rose projected her ambitions onto her daughters, smothering and ultimately alienating them, Aggie is at once selfless and withholding. Only the trauma of her son's death and Janey's impending quickie wedding — which Aggie, who got hitched to Tom in a hurry, is determined to transform into something more elaborate — shakes her into realizing how much she has denied herself and others.
Prince makes Aggie's conflicting emotions palpable and haunting. And her relationships with Fierstein's wisecracking Winston, Tom Wopat's worn Tom and Leslie Kritzer's touching Janey are completely believable.
For all the trials these characters endure, A Catered Affair is ultimately a celebration of life — neither flashy nor flawless, but well worth attending.
Musicals are generally expected to heighten emotions, to transport the characters to some elevated plane of self-expression, whether it's love or loss, laughs or sorrow. So it seems an almost radical step when a show is as deliberately and uniformly subdued as "A Catered Affair," adapted from Paddy Chayefsky's 1955 teleplay and Gore Vidal's screenplay for the movie the following year. Composer John Bucchino's melodious score never seeks to overpower the action but instead to feed the dramatic texture, subtly interwoven with book writer Harvey Fierstein's dialogue to create a show that's less a conventional musical than a semi-sung play.
Even on the relatively cozy stage of the Walter Kerr -- a playhouse only recently given over to musicals -- the quietness and intimacy of "A Catered Affair" echo in ways not always helpful to the work. And handsome as they are, the collaborative pictures conjured by David Gallo's Bronx apartment block set, Zachary Borovay's sepia-toned projections and Brian MacDevitt's muted lighting sometimes further the impression of a miniaturist portrait on a big canvas.
But even if the show's ideal staging might be as a pared-down chamber piece years from now, it's a testament to the rigorously unflashy approach of Bucchino, Fierstein and a disciplined cast that its sentiments never for a moment feel manufactured.
A bittersweet reflection on the complexities of marriage and relationships, this small but satisfying drama forgoes big emotional impact for poignant understatement. It's true to the spirit of Chayefsky's writing and evocative of a period in American life when the chasm between upper and lower middle class was increasingly apparent. We might now be in the midst of an encroaching recession rather than a boom, but the parallels make this perhaps the perfect show for a new period of economic anxiety and widening class divides.
Musical traditionalists will no doubt complain about the absence of upbeat, hummable numbers and the frugality of applause breaks, but Bucchino's work is entirely of a piece with the direction and writing. Whether it's in the exquisite underscoring or the introspective songs, the minor-key beauty of the music as heard in Jonathan Tunick's delicate, filigreed orchestrations captivates while remaining determinedly unintrusive.
A songwriter whose work has been widely embraced by cabaret performers, Bucchino is new to musical theater and a welcome addition to the post-Sondheim generation of thoughtful composers that includes Adam Guettel, Michael John LaChiusa, Jeanine Tesori and Jason Robert Brown. The odds that "A Catered Affair" will find mainstream acceptance may be slim, but the show commands respect by further challenging standard preconceptions of how the Broadway musical should sound, function and feel.
John Doyle is a Brit director whose presentational style has primarily been seen here in his celebrated revivals of "Sweeney Todd" and "Company" -- in which actors doubled as musicians -- and his stand-and-deliver approach may not be the most dynamic solution for such sober material. But it crucially provides the actors with the stillness and breathing room needed to reveal character shadings.
This is true particularly of Faith Prince as the drama's stoic center, Aggie, a Bronx housewife inured to a life of self-denial, scraping to feed and clothe her family on the earnings of her sullen cab-driver husband Tom (Tom Wopat). While Fierstein has remained largely faithful to the 1956 movie (which starred Bette Davis and Ernest Borgnine), he has freshened the scar caused by the death of Aggie and Tom's son in the Korean War. (The second son from the screen version has been excised.)
The government bereavement check resulting from that loss becomes a chief source of conflict. Tom wants it to buy joint ownership in a taxi, providing self-employment and increased income, but Aggie wants it to pay for a lavish wedding reception for their daughter Janey (Leslie Kritzer), setting the tone for her marriage with the kind of joyful sendoff she and Tom never had.
Her mother's daughter, pragmatic Janey had decided on a no-frills ceremony with schoolteacher fiance Ralph (underused Matt Cavenaugh), but more for Aggie's sake than her own, she allows herself to get caught up in the ballooning plans.
There are deep psychological nuances to be mined here, and Fierstein and Bucchino meticulously excavate the feelings of characters for whom suppressed emotion and sacrifice are an ineluctable part of life. The similarities between mother and daughter are traced both in book scenes and in songs like Prince's "Married" or Kritzer's "One White Dress," with both the older and younger woman viewing life and marital commitment with eyes wide open.
With her one plain, serviceable dress (Ann Hould-Ward's eloquent costumes are spot-on) and mousy hair piled up for practicality, Aggie is without airs or expectations, but her disappointment in life hasn't smothered her pride. The tender toughness of Prince's measured performance makes it easy to empathize with her rash decision to barge ahead with plans for a grand wedding -- partly to make amends for the wan romance of her own marriage, partly to compensate for having favored her late son over her daughter, and partly to stanch her humiliation in front of Ralph's ostentatious parents (Lori Wilner, Philip Hoffman), doing nicely in real estate.
As she sings "Vision," while the components of a perfect wedding come together in her mind, Prince's restrained rapture is lovely. When the show does transport in traditional musical mode, the actress is its primary vehicle.
Expanding her range from her usual comic roles, Kritzer is also effective. She brings a down-to-earth warmth and sensitivity to self-possessed Janey that adds emotional weight to her increasing alarm as the wedding plans cause escalating friction. And Wopat is enormously moving as a burdened, uncommunicative man who absorbs his wife's rebukes with only an occasional rumble until her insinuation that there's no love between them causes him to erupt in "I Stayed."
In addition to centralizing the dead son, the most significant change from the movie is Fierstein's role for himself as Aggie's "confirmed bachelor" brother, Winston. He's equally touchy about the threat of being excluded from an event for "Immediate Family," but unlike the asexual interloper played by Barry Fitzgerald (named Jack in the film), Winston is unapologetically gay and grappling with his own offstage relationship issues. With his raspy deadpan and self-aggrandizing way with a quick retort, Fierstein brings a leavening strain of humor that keeps the melancholy material from becoming morose.
There are weaknesses, like an unprepossessing opening number in "Partners," and a prosaic roller-coaster metaphor for life in the concluding song, "Coney Island." But the show resonates due to its modesty, grace, gentleness and emotional integrity -- qualities not often front and center in musicals.