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Tonys 2008: Will 'A Catered Affair' be served well?

April 22, 2008 |  9:31 am

"A Catered Affair," a new tuner based on a 1950s film about a Bronx family's struggle to pay for its daughter's wedding, opened to mixed reviews last week. Yesterday it managed to score only two nods from the Outer Critics Circle: best new Broadway musical and best actress (Faith Prince). Compare that with "Young Frankenstein," which also got less-than-stellar notices: it led with 10 nominations. This may not bode well for "Affair's" Tony chances when nominations are announced on May 13, but it still has reasons for hopes.


Given that Paddy Chayefsky's original teleplay and Gore Vidal's screenplay were adapted by Tony favorite Harvey Fierstein, who also wrote himself a great part, this small show could pull off a big upset. Tony winner Prince ("Guys and Dolls"), who plays the mother of the bride (Bette Davis delivered an uncharacteristically low-key performance in the film), is sure to get a best actress nod. But that race seems to be between another Broadway vet, Patti LuPone ("Gypsy") and ingénue Kelli O'Hara ("South Pacific").

Fierstein, who shares the Tony record for wins in the widest range of categories (four) with Tommy Tune, could break the tie if he pulls off an upset and gets the award for best featured actor. He already has Tonys for best play and best actor in a play ("Torch Song Trilogy"), best actor in a musical ("Hairspray"), and best book of a musical ("La Cage aux Folles"). Harvey has never lost a Tonys race! So what's next? He seems to have a better shot at an acting bid than writing. While certain critics were respectful of his adaptation, many found the tuner out of tune when it came to the words and music by cabaret vet John Bucchino. Personally, I disagree with that assessment. There were clumsy moments here and there, yes, but I believed every word those characters spoke and I was touched by same.

Michael Kuchwara of AP thought the show, "demands serious attention from an audience, but the effort is worth it. It's a bittersweet musical that is unafraid to stand still and let theatergoers linger in the nuance of love lost and then, most joyously, found."

Writing for the New York Times, Ben Brantley says, "(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."

Linda Winer of Newsday says, "(h)ow bold to make a Broadway musical on such restrained material as 'A Catered Affair.' How sad that the results are so glum. Despite the dedication of a fine cast, including Faith Prince, Tom Wopat and author Harvey Fierstein, this is a colorless little piece of '50s social realism about a Bronx family that isn't so much emotionally repressed as emotionally deficient."

While USA Today's Elysa Gardner had reservations about the music, she lauded the singers. "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 Joe Dziemianowicz of the New York Daily News, "Harvey Fierstein has contributed a lot to the Broadway stage, from 'Torch Song Trilogy' and 'La Cage aux Folles' to his tour de force in 'Hairspray.' But his latest effort, 'A Catered Affair,' which he initiated, wrote and appears in, regretfully isn't his finest hour -- make that, hour and a half." As he explains, the show "seems well-intentioned but doesn't deliver enough story, substance or satisfaction. It's about poor people, yes, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't have meat on the bone and icing on the cake."

And Jeremy McCarter in New York called the show, "gloomy (a)nd not always so compelling." As he explains, "Bucchino’s moody score keeps inviting unflattering comparisons to Sondheim. (That the two share an orchestrator, Jonathan Tunick, doesn’t help.) John Doyle, whose actors-as-musicians versions of 'Sweeney Todd' and 'Company' are two of my favorite Broadway productions, gets stuck between a literal, slice-of-life treatment (worn furniture, working kitchen) and a suggestive, urban-panorama treatment (projections, towering fire escapes)." However, he concludes, "(y)et as unmoved as I felt at the time, the show somehow left a chill that’s persisted, an echo of the heartbreaking, unyielding way Prince’s Aggie insists that somebody in that family get some kind of dream fulfilled. As an added bonus, it’s always nice to see Fierstein back on Broadway — and in a pants role, no less. His warm, ingratiating performance as resident 'bachelor' Winston makes the show feel like a rare sort of musical indeed: a life lesson from Uncle Harvey."

David Rooney of Variety said, "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."

And, in a four-star review, Clive Barnes of the New York Post said the show, "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."

(Photos: Walter Kerr Theatre)