Review: A CATERED AFFAIR Encourages Everyone Take the Ride of Life, But Never Miss the View
Many baby boomers whose parents married quickly and inexpensively after World War II will identify with the premise in A CATERED AFFAIR, taking place in the Bronx in 1953. At the beginning of the play, we meet young lovers Janey Hurley (bubbly blonde Alison Boettcher) and Ralph Halloran (handsome Christopher Tiernan) as they awake in bed after spending the night together who then decide to get married. But rather than spend too much money and time planning a big wedding, Janey decides the best way to go about it is to get married in a couple of day at City Hall, after which the two newlyweds can drive a friend's car across the country to California, while getting paid and put up at motels along the way. Seems like an easy plan, no?
But at the same time as the young lovers are making plans to marry, Janey's father, Tom (M Hayward Scott), who owns a third-share in a taxi, agrees with one of his partners, Sam (Daniel Gaitan), that they will buy out the share of the third driver, Pasternak. As Janey and Ralph get dressed in the bedroom stage left, Tom and Sam on the front stoop center stage, happily exclaim the virtues of partnership ("Partners"). And since the couple does not want a large, expensive wedding, and Tom needs the money to buy out Pasternak, the timing is perfect since after a 30-year wait, as his son has just been killed in the Korean War, thus his survivor benefits will cover the cost of the buyout.
Of course, all their plans go out the window when Janey's mother Aggie (everywoman Cindy Shields) announces that the upcoming wedding will be held quickly and quietly in City Hall, causing the neighborhood women (Claire Griswold, Christina Railey, Amanda Webb) to react from their windows singing ("Women Chatter"). After all, in 1953, the reason for a quickie wedding had to be that the bride was pregnant. Not the case here, but it was for the bride's friend whose car she plans to drive to California. It's a great comical song done well by the four women, although I wish one of them did not have to smoke a cigarette so close to the audience as it caused many to cough.
So that the future in-laws can meet prior to the wedding, Janey asks her mother Aggie to prepare dinner with Ralph's wealthier parents (Daniel Gaitan, Amanda Webb), which leads Aggie to decide to give the couple a huge formal affair, committing her and Tom's life's savings and bereavement check to an elaborate catered affair with an extensive guest list and a lavish reception ("Our Only Daughter"). You see, Aggie feels guilty about having neglected Janey her entire life in favor of their older son and sees an opportunity to plan the white wedding she herself never had. This plan will ring true for those of us, including me, whose mothers chose to plan our weddings as their own for exactly the same reason!
Complicating matters is Aggie's brother Winston (scene stealer Ruben Morales) who is staying with the family after a recent break-up. Initially hurt and furious at having been left off the original guest list, he becomes a support for Aggie and soon begins adding to the guest list in his excitement of planning a huge gathering in the neighborhood. Janey, who is initially beguiled by the attention, happily picks out a wedding dress ("One White Dress") in a heartfelt scene with her mother, during which Shields lets us see every emotion in Aggie's heart, happy for her daughter while wishing she had been able to experience such happiness herself.
But soon relationships are strained to the breaking point under the pressure of costly bridesmaids' dresses (wonderfully realistic scene at a café between Janey and her friend/matron of honor Alice (Genevieve Kennedy), cake layers, flowers, limousines, and an ever-expanding guest list. Confessions then abound, leading to decisions which will affect each of the character's lives, especially after Janey and Ralph decide to call off the elaborate wedding and marry quietly as they planned, with Janey offering to pay her parents back for all the costly event deposits. Just how Janey has money to do that is never quite explained, unless of course she is committing her future, wealthy husband to do that. But of course when asked, he agrees.
The quiet and unemotional Tom finally expresses his love and caring for Aggie in the anthem to all the trials and tribulations of marriage ("I Stayed"), but as great as the song is, its range was way beyond the singing capabilities of Scott, causing it to be cringe-worthy and groan-inducingly flat frequently. That, on top of Boettcher's much too soft singing to have the lyrics heard, makes me advise director Jim Hormel and musical director Stephen Amundson to take note when casting a musical: please be sure your cast can sing the necessary songs well and be heard by the audience, especially in the small space at the Torrance Theatre Company.
The theme of the play is summed up at the end by Uncle Winston ("Coney Island") during which he notes how often people "Paid your money, took the ride, but missed the view." Let us all remember to keep our eyes open rather than let the joys of our own lives pass us by.
Kudos to scenic designer Cary Jordahl for his marvelous, movable-piece, multi-location set, brilliantly lit by Steve Giltner, Streetlite, LLC, and costume designer Bradley Allen Lock for authentically meeting the demands necessary for so many characters in so many scenes.
A CATERED AFFAIR, the often funny, poignant and touching musical about love and disaffection with book by Harvey Fierstein and score by John Bucchino, explores both our need for love and the true meaning of family. Presented by Torrance Theatre Company, performances run through June 17 on Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, Sunday at 2 pm; plus a special Thursday night performance on June 14th at 7 pm, which is followed by a Q & A with the cast, at 1316 Cabrillo Ave, Torrance 90501, in the heart of the historic downtown district. General admission tickets are $30. Tickets available online at TorranceTheatreCompany.com or via phone at 424-243-6882. Photo credit: Miguel Elliot