Aurora Theatre's regional premiere A Catered Affair pops a timeless question: Are weddings for the bride and groom, or their families? The moving but uneven musical, based on the 1956 film The Catered Affair with Bette Davis and Ernest Borgnine, seems to provide the answer: for the mother of the bride.
In the early 1950s Bronx, young lovers Janey Hurley (Laura Floyd) and Ralph Halloran (Jeremy Wood) impulsively decide to marry so they can turn a travel opportunity into a free honeymoon. The snap decision brings out turbulent emotions in Janey's mother, Aggie (Ingrid Cole). Aggie's so unhappy in her marriage to taciturn cab driver Tom (Anthony Rodriguez) that she treats Janey's engagement as both a blessed event and a death sentence. She also feels guilty for having long favored Janey's brother, who recently died in the Korean War. She lobbies to make up for Janey's second-rate childhood – and the fact that she never had a fancy wedding of her own – with "a catered affair." Cole's passionate solos "Married," "No Fuss" and "Our Only Daughter" build to near-operatic crescendos. The soaring quality of her voice conveys a restless spirit that pushes at the confines of the imprisoning apartment.
As Janey and Ralph waver between the private ceremony they want and a big shindig to please their parents, neighborhood gossips chatter – "Do they have to get married?" – and household tensions erupt. Janey's beloved godfather Winston (Glenn Rainey), a "confirmed bachelor uncle," discovers he won't be invited to the small wedding. In the song "Immediate Family," Winston explodes with resentment over a lifetime of treatment as a second-class citizen for being gay. A Catered Affair co-writer Harvey Fierstein played the role in the show's Broadway run. Rainey proves to be one of the few local actors who can measure up to Fierstein's larger-than-life persona, quick with a quip and emotionally transparent.
Directed by Freddie Ashley of Actor's Express, A Catered Affair makes room for some effervescent moments. During "One White Dress," Janey and Aggie try on wedding gowns. Floyd's phrasing bubbles with girlish surprise as Janey discovers she actually enjoys the fancy frills of being a bride. John Bucchino's music and lyrics can be simple to a fault, however. Consequently, A Catered Affair has the intimate, at times claustrophobic, quality of a chamber piece. It makes you appreciate the comparable songs in Stephen Sondheim's Company that capture the complex, bittersweet feelings of long-term relationships.
Fierstein's book suffers from too many repetitive, labored explanations, calling to mind Urinetown's warning, "Nothing can kill a show like too much exposition." The Hurley's financial situation causes the most friction: Tom wants to use the family's savings to buy a share in a taxicab and blanches at a big wedding's price tag. But the Hallorans are well-off, Winston's willing to chip in, and the Hurleys receive a large government check in compensation for their son's death. Tom's poo-mouthing seems contrived as a result.
A Catered Affair's cast offers three-dimensional performances and keeps the melancholy material from being too much of a downer. Nevertheless, if the sad-eyed show were part of a bride's traditional ensemble, it'd be something blue.
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