Tuesday 18th June 2013
It was with a great sense of anticipation that we made our way back to the Royal Academy of Music after a two year absence for their Musical Theatre students’ end of year show ‘A Catered Affair’. This show, unfamiliar to us, has some interesting credentials. With music and lyrics by multi-award winning composer (albeit mostly outside the field of musical theatre) John Bucchino and book by Harvey Fierstein, who was responsible for the book of one of our favourite musicals ‘La Cage Aux Folles’, we didn’t mind too much that we’d never heard of the 1956 film on which it is based.
Set in the Bronx in 1953, Aggie and Tom Hurley attend a memorial service for their son, who has been killed in the Korean war, while their daughter, Jane, has a romantic tryst with her boyfriend. Eager to leave home to avoid living in the shadow of her dead brother, and tired of having to meet in secret, they decide impulsively to get married sooner rather than later, and Jane, ever the practical one, suggests a road trip to California for a honeymoon – her friend has moved there and needs someone to deliver her car. So, with this rather spurious deadline for the wedding, the action unfolds, as the family fight over whether to have an expensive ‘catered affair’ or a cheap and cheerful rush job. Nowadays, with the growing enthusiasm for poundland weddings and a greater recognition that it’s not shameful to scrimp, they could probably have had their cake and eaten it, but in the 1950s this was apparently a major source of angst. Part of the problem with the plot is the incongruous combination of serious drama with farcical elements of family drama where the stakes seem very low indeed. Not that we want to suggest that families in real life don’t tear themselves apart over apparently trivial special occasions, or that tragedy and comedy should not be combined, but here they do not quite gel, and there isn’t the kind of feelgood warmth we might hope for.
One of the important things we have to take account of is that this is an end of year show for the students on a Musical Theatre course, so the choices here are not the same as they would be in commercial theatre. There must be many constraints in terms of casting and choosing the right material to show off students’ talents. Which is why, regardless of the quality or otherwise of the piece, we would have to wonder how good a showcase it offers, especially for students of musical theatre. It is more like a play with songs than a musical, and there is no dancing to speak of, very little ensemble work, and much more emphasis on acting. Moreover, the combination of a ‘kitchen sink’ style and a cast of characters many of whom are much older than the students playing them, seems to offer an ultimately unrewarding task. The tone is relentlessly downbeat, but not tragic enough to be deeply moving. Interestingly, two years ago, a production of Follies raised the same questions about age, but in this case it was in a much more impressionistic piece with genuinely showstopping musical numbers which allowed the students to convey the emotions of the piece through music and dance.
Despite all this, many of the cast did shine: Sian Crisp as Aggie Hurley captured the sadness of the mother who couldn’t seem to do anything right, particularly with her musical numbers; Jessica Louise Parkinson has a lovely light voice and brings youthful energy to the role of the daughter who has had to survive on her wits, allowing herself briefly to dream of a fancy wedding in ‘One White Dress’ before returning to her normal self; Gonzalo Ramos, quietly grumpy as husband Tom, comes out of the shadows impressively with his furious number ‘I Stayed’; and Natalie Taylor Gray makes the most of her role as Mrs Halloran, the prospective mother in law. Frustratingly the chorus sing together beautifully in the few moments when they get the chance, but with the housewives stuck up unfeasibly high ladders much of the time, making them visually isolated and often making the dialogue hard to hear, there is little opportunity for really creating a sense of community.
We really feel we can’t blame the production or the cast if this was a slightly underwhelming experience, but we would have liked to see something which allowed the students to spread their wings a little more. Perhaps it’s worth noting that the Broadway debut of ‘A Catered Affair’ didn’t fare much better.