At one point in the bleak family musical "A Catered Affair," a piece by Harvey Fierstein and John Bucchino set in the South Bronx in 1953 — and in its Chicago premiere from Porchlight Music Theatre — the financially struggling parents of a young woman about to be married look back on their child-raising skills. "We've never been kind to her, Tom," the mother of the house says in a resigned tone. "We always treated her cold."
"A Catered Affair" is about an impending wedding and the problem of whether folks struggling financially should blow their life savings on a meal for strangers, bowing to obligation or insecurity and celebrating their daughter's nuptials in a way she does not herself want. On one level, it's a small musical about how weddings so easily degenerate into a situation in which everyone is doing what they think everyone else wants them to do; about the way kids leaving the nest roils everyone; and about how not having enough money to not have to worry about money is a killer. On every level.
None of those problems has gone away in the last half-century. And in the better moments of this intense affair, you find yourself thinking about them and making a few vows yourself.
But the central problem with this honorably unstinting 2008 musical, which I also caught on Broadway during its brief run, is that the characters in this story, based on a television drama by Paddy Chayefsky and the 1956 Bette Davis movie that followed, are such a grim crew, so prone to barking at and fighting with one another, they wear on you. With the exception of an inorganic ending that feels like an obligatory attempt to end with a note of hope, the show is characterized by so much familial unpleasantness that you find yourself resisting this cold group.
It's not that the characters are unbelievable — to the contrary, there surely were struggling families in this era whose main problem was not so much money as the genesis of the parents' marriage, in this case a seemingly loveless result of economic need and societal obligation. It's just that the show does not have enough material that shows you the love that, in a musical as in life, you want to believe is there, underneath.
Director Nick Bowling's new Porchlight Theatre production, which looks quite expensively produced and features an eight-piece orchestra, fully commits to the veracity of this piece and features a variety of superb character actors (the remarkable Rebecca Finnegan and Craig Spidle) who know how to show us characters in pain. The acting is frequently excellent. Spidle and Finnegan are relentless (the panic in Spidle's eyes when he realizes money is being spent is strikingly intense), Jerry O'Boyle (who plays the gay uncle who lives on the couch) makes much of Fierstein's sharp observations and paints a full picture of his complex man, and both Kelly Davis Wilson and Jim DeSelm capture the brief buoyancy of youth.
But, alas, "A Catered Affair" is not an especially well-sung affair. The actors have Bucchino's tough, buttoned-down score to sing, mostly in the style of recitative. In Bowling's production, there is no visible conductor to follow, and the onstage strings rarely help the actors pick out the melody. And thus several of the musical numbers wander off-key. That's a significant problem here. With a show this dark, one badly needs the compensatory beauty of the music.
There are exceptions: Finnegan, who grits her teeth here like Mama Rose, is a fine singer, and she is quite spectacular during her solos "Married," "Our Only Daughter" and "Vision." This score has some riches, even though it never fully soars as it could, if only it had unleashed itself and the yearning souls of the characters who sing its notes. And O'Boyle's "Coney Island" is skillfully wrought. But many of these performers are actors — fine actors — rather than singers, and this is a show that requires both.
Strangely, Bowling's production doesn't fully evoke the claustrophobic feel of apartment life in the South Bronx; Brian Sidney Bembridge's set has a big, central space that feels more like a no-man's land than a caldron, simmering with pain and regret.
When: Through April 1
Where: Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Tickets: $38 at 773-327-5252 or porchlightmusictheatre.org