Dark Shadows

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If I had a dollar every time someone told me they went to see musicals because they’re “fun”, I would be as rich as Ann Romney. Casual theatergoers don’t realize that there are some musical theater that’s not cut from the Ethel Merman/Wicked cloth of joyous belt-it-out vibratos and play-to-the-balcony jazz hands.  I wouldn’t call Cabaret’s pessimism or Falsetto’s devastating loss “fun”.  And there is definitely nothing “fun” in John Bucchino’s and Harvey Fierstein’s A Catered Affair, based on the 1956 hyper-realistic family drama starring Bette Davis and Ernest Borgnine, written by Gore Vidal from a teleplay by Paddy Chayefsky, now in a very memorable Chicago production from Porchlight Music TheatreA Catered Affair is a melancholy, regretful chamber piece which is definitely not for those who like their musical theater exuberant and catchy with a side of froth.  However, for those of us who love all kinds of theater, including musical theater which unsettle us, which gnaw at us, days after we’ve seen the performance, A Catered Affair, is a must-see.

A Catered Affair is about a lower-middle-class family in the Bronx who, having just lost their son in the Korean War, finds out that their daughter is planning to get married through a quickly-arranged City Hall wedding.  Aggie, the mother, for various reasons – whether to do the right thing for Janey, their only surviving child, or whether to make up for the fact that she didn’t get a proper wedding to Tom since she was several months pregnant when they got married, or whether preparing for the “catered affair” takes her mind off the pain of losing and burying a child – vehemently insists on throwing an elaborate wedding. This stubbornness to have a wedding at all costs leads to all sorts of emotional conflicts between Aggie, Tom, Janey, and Aggie’s “bachelor” brother, Uncle Winston, who lives with the family.  It’s a pretty mundane set-up, but Bucchino’s songs, beautifully haunting, reeking with palpable sadness, skillfully crafted with lyrics that pointedly and oftentimes painfully depict family relationships of all kinds, elevates the material.  Bucchino writes the songs in the contemporary recitative manner which can be off-putting to audiences who like their musicals with big brass, schmaltzy strings, and repetitive choruses. I haven’t seen the movie but I think Fierstein’s book, although it honorably attempts to say something resonant about the 1950s period (the preoccupation with social standing and material goods, the semi-closeted aspects of the obviously gay character Winston are things we can still relate to today), still comes off a little quaint and old-fashioned, demonstrating its origins as a, well, 1950s teleplay.

The show, I think, succeeds on the strength of its performances, and boy, does Porchlight’s production have a supernova in its middle.  Rebecca Finnegan, one of my favorite Chicago actors, and who, admittedly, I have a gay-boy-crush on, plays Aggie, a role the great Bette Davis said was one of those she was proudest of in her career, with an impressive, indelible mix of smoldering infuriation, resignation, and frustration at a life that could have been lived better or more fully.  Finnegan is one of those rare actors who are as great in the singing scenes as they are in the dramatic scenes. And when she sings, always marvelously and heartfully, she sings not because she’s a musical theater performer basking in the spotlight, but because the song emanates naturally from the emotions of her character. Frankly, I teared up during her performance of “Our Only Daughter” when she explains her reasons for insisting on the wedding.  Finnegan is superbly matched by Craig Spidle as Tom, who hardly speaks, but through his gestures, silent responses, posture, shuffling walk, communicates eloquently the exhaustion of years of trying to be a good provider to a wife who doesn’t truly appreciate him. And when he sings Tom’s eleven o’clock number, “I Stayed”, in response to Aggie’s claim that she has been in a loveless marriage all these years, it’s powerfully gut-wrenching.

The rest of the cast is terrific, with an impressively restrained performance from Jerry O’Boyle as Winston, a character that could have been played as a stereotypical 50s Tennessee Williams-like gay. I like Nick Bowling’s unfussy, naturalistic direction, but I find it perplexing that some of the scenes are played on a catwalk which actually for me gives a distancing, artificial element to what is essentially a naturalistic play. A Catered Affair proves that you don’t need all that razzle-dazzle to have a great time at a musical.  Just don’t call it “fun”.

A Catered Affair is at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, until April 1.

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