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Paulanne Simmons

“A Catered Affair” Has Lot of Heart, But Misses the Beat


"A catered affair" by John Doyle.

Directed by John Doyl
Walter Kerr Theatre
219 West 48th St. (between Broadway and 8th Ave.)
Opened April 17, 2008 Mon thru Sat. 8 p.m., Wed. & Sat. matinees 2 p.m
$29.50-$199.50 (212) 239-6200
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons April 23, 3008

Anyone who's ever been part of a family celebration knows all about the ambivalent feelings, ancient feuds and tortured relationships that emerge at exactly those moments one hopes will be filled with joy and happiness.

“The Catered Affair,” a 1956 MGM film starring Bette Davis, Debbie Reynolds and Ernest Borgnine, explored the fragmentation and eventual coming together of a Bronx Irish family when their daughter decides she is going to marry her longtime boyfriend. It was a heartwarming story, but would it make a successful musical?

Harvey Fierstein (book) and John Bucchino (music and lyrics) bet that it would, but the show they created proves that turning a drama into a musical takes a lot more than adding a few songs. Director John Doyle is not able to give the show the kind of electricity that makes for a Broadway musical hit.

When Janey Hurley (Leslie Kritzer) tells her mother, Aggie (Faith Prince) and father, Tom (Tom Wopat) she's going to marry Ralph (Matt Cavenaugh) in a small wedding at City Hall, they both agree that whatever she wants is fine with them. Then Aggie has second thoughts. She is troubled by neighbors who find such a quick wedding suspect; her brother, Winston, who is indignant and hurt when he finds out he will not be invited to the wedding; and her own feelings of guilt at not giving her daughter a big affair she can remember throughout her married life (and no one knows better than Aggie how difficult that can be).

A big wedding is planned, even though it will eat up all of the money the government is sending the family in compensation for the loss of their son in the Korean War and mean that Tom will not be able to buy his own taxicab. As Janey's future in-laws keep adding to the guest list and her best friend refuses to be her matron of honor because she and her husband cannot afford new attire, it becomes apparent the wedding is causing more problems than a big celebration is worth.

Prince is wonderful as Aggie, a woman who has missed out on a loving marriage, lost a treasured son, and neglected the daughter who could have been her friend and confidant. Wopat gives a sympathetic portrayal of Tom, a practical man who tries to do the right thing but finds it difficult to understand his wife's romantic longings.

But the towering presence in the play is Harvey Fierstein, who plays Winston, Aggie's gay (and Jewish?) brother, who lives with the Hurleys. Winston, like an evil genie, has an uncanny instinct for finding the fault lines in the family structure. He knows exactly what to say to draw blood or tears.

With such a moving story one would think Bucchino had ample opportunity to create a magnificent score. But somehow he misses the boat.

David Gallo's recreates the lower middle-class Bronx of the 1950s with poetic perfection. But in the opening scene Bucchino never takes the opportunity to express this in song. In fact, the neighbors' comments on the Hurley family wedding are always in dialogue, never in song. Was the composer sleeping?

While Prince's “Our Only Daughter,” Kritzer and Prince's “One White Dress” and Fierstein's “Coney Island” all add a new emotional dimension to characterization and story, most of the songs interrupt rather than contribute anything to the action.

“A Catered Affair” is always moving and sometimes funny, but it never has the energy and excitement that is vital to a musical.


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