By Stanford Friedman
The 47-year old York Theatre Company exists in its own unique time bubble. From its unorthodox midtown east location, in the basement theater of Saint Peter’s Church, it has been steadily producing new musicals that are concerned with the past. Last year, they had a hit with the 1930’s era Cagney, deconstructing the brutish male ego of that famous movie gangster. Now they turn to the 1950’s and 60’s with A Taste of Things to Come, an all-female exploration of the demise of the housewife and the rise of Women’s Lib. It asks the musical question, can four powerhouse actors with Broadway caliber voices rise above their one dimensional characters and just mildly funny book to bring home a satisfying production. Yes, they manage to deliver the goods, but the goods are less than great.
Act I is set in 1957 in a suburban Illinois home where the Wednesday Winnetka Women’s Cooking Club has been called to order. We meet our host Joan (Paige Faure), whose husband is mostly away, as she welcomes Connie (Autumn Hurlbert), whose husband is mostly gay, Dottie (Allison Guinn) whose husband is mostly fertile, and Agnes (Janet Dacal) who is mostly single. The song-filled, minimally plotted scenes are a dubious ode to the era’s icons. First and foremost, there is Betty Crocker, the cookbook goddess who might be their salvation. Then there is Dear Abby, the problem solver who knows what they are going through. Their homage to her is the night’s best example of a song that fails to be as humorous and poignant as it should be. On the male side of the slate there is Joe Bonomo whose 25-cent pocket books were grocery store hits, with titles like “Essential Tips for Every Woman.” And coming too late into the proceedings, a copy of “The Kinsey Report on Human Female Sexuality” lands at their feet before they shuffle off to a predictable pre-intermission twist.
Act II finds the ladies meeting up for a reunion a decade later. They’ve come a long, groovy way, baby. Both Joan and Agnes have sought out and embraced their identity, while the life choices made by Connie and Dottie have resulted in having their identities thrust upon them. The show concludes with the characters embracing a subplot that touches on immigration and celebrating the notion that women can achieve any goal. It is here that we are gut punched with the real taste of things to come. What the playwrights must have once imagined as a joyful ending has become a bittersweet finale, another victim of our country’s real world politics, “No matter how much you think you know/life can be so strange/And as the years go by you see/How much the truth can change.”
Ms. Dacal and Ms. Faure both ignite the stage with their showcase numbers, especially in the first act with Agnes dreaming of a better life in “I’m Outta Here” and Joan smoldering over the joys of sex in “Somethin’s Burnin’.” Ms. Guinn’s Dottie is a more problematic and hard to believe character, a Christian mom, feminist, pro-draft pill popper who suffers through a fat joke prat fall involving a beanbag chair. Still, she manages to shine in her Act II paean to motherhood, “Just a Mom.” It’s a loud show, and the more diminutive Ms. Hurlbert sometimes gets lost amid all the noise, but her few quiet moments provide a pleasant change in tempo. Steven C. Kemp’s scenic design and Dana Burkart’s costumes are spot on and perhaps director Lorin Latarro’s best move of the night is the Act II reveal of the show’s four band members, an electric moment that literally and figuratively takes down a wall.
A Taste of Things to Come – Book, music and lyrics by Debra Barsha and Hollye Levin. Directed and choreographed by Lorin Latarro.
WITH: Janet Dacal (Agnes), Paige Faure (Joan), Allison Guinn (Dottie) and Autumn Hurlbert (Connie).
Steven C. Kemp (set), Dana Burkart (costumes), Nathan Scheuer (lighting), Daniel J. Gerhard (sound), Kate Stack (props), Justin West (projections). Music direction by Gillian Berkowitz, the Production Stage Manager is Veronica Aglow, Orchestrations and Dance Arrangements by Debra Barsha with Lena Gabrielle. In association with Staci Levine and What’s Cookin’ LLC, The York Theatre Company at Saint Peter’s, 619 Lexington Avenue. (212) 935-5820, www.yorktheatre.org. Through December 11. Running time; 2 hours.