Porchlight’s admirable ‘A Catered Affair’ is a study in subtlety

Jerry O’Boyle, Craig Spidle and Rebecca Finnegan in Porchlight’s “A Catered Affair.” Photo credit: Brandon Dahlquist

In its essence, Harvey Fierstein and John Bucchino’s A Catered Affair is a simple, slice-of-life family drama that happens to be accompanied by a delicate score. So it doesn’t surprise me that it didn’t find success when the show opened on Broadway in 2008 — subtlety is a hard sell when it comes to Broadway musicals. Especially when the musical concerns real, everyday problems such as finances, recent loss and parental guilt.

However, in Chicago’s theatre scene we embrace such things — especially when they’re ensemble driven. And Porchlight’s thoughtful production makes a strong case for this show to get another look.

Based on the 1956 MGM film of the same name, the musical peers into the life of the Hurleys, a working class family who recently lost a son in the war. Jane (the perfectly cast Kelly Davis Wilson) announces to her family that she’s getting married in the coming week and wants a simple, courthouse ceremony — immediate family only. Her mother Aggie (Rebecca Finnegan, doing her best work to date) and father Tom (Craig Spidle), while surprised, comply with Jane’s request.

That is, until the guilt sets in and Aggie begins to feel she owes her daughter a special day, regardless of if they can afford it (and if it nearly tears the family apart in planning such an elaborate catered affair).

Despite the melancholic tone of the piece, Director Nick Bowling brings a tender, hopeful touch, making it easy to connect with this struggling family. Yet there are two big problems with Porchlight’s otherwise fine production: first, the venue is an acoustic nightmare for a such a subtle show (the gorgeous, onstage string quartet overpowers the vocals on many occasions, despite the actors being unevenly miked). Second, Brian Sidney Bembridge’s stage design, though lovely to look at, places many of the key scenes on an awkwardly lit platform, located at the far back of the house and high above the audience, removing us from the intimacy of the moment.

And then there’s Bucchino’s light (some might say slight), lilting score. I can’t say I loved it, but I appreciated it for its simplicity. There are many lovely moments (mostly reserved for Aggie, which are exquisitely delivered by Finnegan), and there are some, well, missed opportunities (Tom’s big number where he confronts his wounded wife doesn’t have the necessary impact). Throughout, Doug Peck’s music direction is first-rate.

“A Catered Affair” plays through April 1 at Stage 773. More info here >

2 thoughts on “Porchlight’s admirable ‘A Catered Affair’ is a study in subtlety

  1. Have you seen the film? It happened to be on TMC the day I saw this on Broadway and it really illustrated what was wrong with that production – namely Harvey decided to make it all about his character and make it a memory piece for him, when the character should be almost non-existent. Really threw the show off balance and I’m wondering if this has been fixed in other productions…

    1. I have not seen the film. However, the gay uncle character seemed to not overdominate the evening, but maybe that’s just because the actor playing him (Jerry O’Boyle) wasn’t the huge personality I’m assuming Harvey is/was in the role. Which I guess is a good thing, because it would seem strange to have the show focus on him too much. I also didn’t really get that it was a memory play for Uncle Winston from Porchlight’s production.

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