(l to r) Libby Servais, Cortney Wolfson, Linedy Genao and Marissa Rosen in ‘A Taste of Things to Come.’
(Photo: brett beiner photography)
By Becky Sarwate
Making its local debut at Broadway in Chicago’s Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, A Taste of Things to Come greets Windy City audiences with an impressive roster of onstage and offstage female creatives. This for women, by women, look at Middle American housewives and their liberating friendships is the brainchild of authors Debra Barsha and Hollye Levin — no strangers to musical comedy.
Barsha’s previous work includes music direction for the original Off-Broadway company of Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding, while Levin developed Funny Business, a song and dance salute to the comedy club circuit. With this collaboration, Barsha and Levin introduce a cast of broadly drawn post -World War II characters, backed by a pretty kickin’ all-woman rock band, to tell a slice of life story about “the changing lives of four Winnetka women from the 1950s to the sexual revolution of the 1960s.”
In theory and practice, the production’s goals are laudable. American women in the 1950s were asked to (pleasantly) accept fairly schizophrenic gender roles and norms. After serving their country during the 1940s in the military, factories and other labor and commercial enterprises, the very same ladies were asked to make do with a return to home and hearth management. For many, a “taste” of economic contribution and participation made reverting to more limited ambitions a disquieting experience. These stories are not told often enough.
At the same time, there are still far too few women at the helm of major theatrical endeavors. During the 2016–2017 Broadway season for example, of more than 30 announced productions, only four musicals and two plays are were directed by women. This iteration of A Taste of Things to Come is directed and choreographed by Lorin Latarro, who worked on the Broadway and National Tours of Waitress, among other projects.
The performers who comprise the cast, in particular, Marissa Rosen who plays doting domestic and frequent breeder Dottie O’Farrell, deserve to be household names. In addition to Rosen’s commanding vocals and sharp comedic skills, Cortney Wolfson (Joan Smith), Libby Servais (Connie Olsen) and Linedy Genao (Agnes), take the material they’re given and try to make it crackle. All are proven musical theater veterans that are fun to watch.
Yet I wanted so much more from A Taste of Things to Come. I came away from Sunday’s opening night feeling disappointed by the production’s fluffy overall experience. And it’s clear that the fault lies with the source material, rather than the work of the fine musical, technical and performance talent.
As a critic, I found I am not alone in disapproval. In late 2016, Neil Genzingler of The New York Times described Barsha and Levin’s work as “breezy,” “a show that doesn’t have much depth,” with a first act that “floats along on a wave of silliness.” Indeed it’s disorienting trying to evaluate the Feminine Mystique revolution through an I Love Lucy aesthetic. I’m not sure what purpose the decision serves when stories for and about women already face a steep cultural climb against diminishment. I don’t believe Barsha and Levin intend to engender anger, but that’s a part of what I felt at curtain close.
In addition to the material’s slapstick approach to cultural revolution, the script’s structural challenges undercut audience efforts to know and understand Joan, Agnes, Dottie and Connie. This problem is underscored by the plot summary offered in the production’s press materials:
“They meet every Wednesday for a Betty Crocker cooking contest, imagining how the prizes might change their lives. Their weekly gathering isn’t just about cooking, but a time to share secrets and share frustrations.”
Except there’s a problem. During the first act, viewers are treated to only one of these weekly scenes. One instance of cooking, gossiping and confessional before intermission arrives and we are propelled forward a decade to discover how the characters have evolved. We’re not given enough time or backstory to become invested in the women’s individual journeys. In the effort to create something fun and digestible out of a complicated period in our cultural history, Barsha and Levin shortchange the very women they intend to celebrate, their characters as well as their cast.
If one doesn’t mind the inconsistency between inspiration and outcome, there is plenty of quality music, talent and color to enjoy in A Taste of Things to Come. Call me a hardened feminist, but I was unable to fully surrender to the production’s charms.
A Taste of Things to Come
Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place
175 E Chestnut, Chicago, IL
Through April 29
Becky Sarwate is an award-winning journalist, theater critic and blogger. On March 29, 2018, her first book, Cubsessions: Famous Fans of Chicago’s North Side Baseball Team, will be published by Eckhartz Press. She is a proud Chicago resident, where Becky lives with her husband Bob. Check out her collected work at BeckySarwate.com, and follow her on Twitter @BeckySarwate.