By Colin Douglas
Broadway in Chicago’s A Taste of Things to Come first welcomes audiences to the 50’s. And then on to the 60’s!
The curtain rises on Joan’s 1957 Midwestern kitchen in Winnetka, Illinois. Serving as the show’s narrator, Joan, a stylish housewife and hostess, welcomes her three best friends into her home every Wednesday for the meeting of their weekly cooking club. We meet devoted housewife and seasoned mother, Dottie; perky, nervous and mother-to-be, Connie; and Agnes, a sexy, single lady, with dreams of celebrity. The thin plot revolves around the ladies’ attempt to come up with a stunning recipe that will win them the $50,000 grand prize in the Betty Crocker Cooking Contest.
Dreams of winning the top prize are thin threads used to draw these three diverse women together in order to shed light on the limited and repressed roles of women during the Eisenhower years. The show also explores the intricate dynamics of female friendship, especially during this more innocent era, all in a fun, festive musical comedy.
During the evening, the four friends gossip, read letters from advice columnist Dear Abby, compare tips for becoming the perfect woman, as published by Joe Bonomo in his 25 cent booklets (available at the register of every supermarket) and peruse the scandalous findings of The Kinsey Report. Act I ends with the four ladies fighting with each other and breaking up their longtime friendship.
Following intermission, act two finds our friends 10 years later. It’s now nearing the end of the swinging 60’s. Joan explains that she’s planned a reunion with her three besties, inviting them over for another evening of cooking and kibitzing. Joan’s look has become stylishly mod, as is her new kitchen. Joan’s still happily married to Bob, but both are finally acknowledging their Jewish heritage.
Agnes is embracing her Latina culture and has some exciting news to share. Connie is now a flower child who’s left her gay husband and remarried the Tahitian father of her child and relocated to a South Pacific island. Only Dottie has remained as we found her in the 50’s. She’s still lovingly married to the same man and has given birth to a second set of twins. But it’s Joan who has the biggest news to share: she’s written a book, a memoir, about her four friends during their weekly cooking club meetings. She calls it, appropriately, A Taste of Things to Come. Now the question is, can Joan win her friends’ approval and earn their blessings for publishing her book?
Although the plot is pretty slender, and there’s not much dramatic tension, the terrific music, expertise and showmanship behind this piece is what makes the evening worthwhile. Co-written by Debra Barsha and Hollye Levin, the score is infectious and the lyrics are clever and inviting. The first act offers a series of 50’s pop/rock songs, while the second act features tunes with a driving back beat that sounds like the 60’s. The 15 toe-tapping songs include “Cookin’,” “Dear Abby,” “Happy Hour,” “The Whomp,” “Food,” “In Time” and the poignant and beautifully sung ballad, “Just a Mom.”
The quartet of top-notch, professional actresses who play the four amiable friends are individually talented and blend beautifully together with one another. Each lady is an exceptionally gifted singer, and their harmonies are smooth and precise. But, in addition, each woman is also a talented dancer and actor, with superb comic timing. Cortney Wolfson, whose Broadway credits include leading roles in “Kinky Boots,” “The Addams Family” and “Les Miserables,” is a standout as Joan. Heralding from Indiana and educated at the University of Michigan, Wolfson truly understands the mystique of the Midwestern woman. She’s beautiful, bouncy and poised, with a lovely voice to boot. As Agnes, Linedy Genao returns to Chicago, where she originated the role of Rachel in On Your Feet (currently back in the Windy City). She’s a fireball of energy and has all the right moves. The lovely Genao ultimately sheds her comfy clothes and hair rollers and becomes a lovely butterfly in act two.
Libby Servais, who’s been seen strutting her stuff on Broadway in Lysistrata Jones and as Glinda in Wicked, is dynamite as Connie. For a woman about to give birth any minute, this lady can really move. She’s also one of the show’s standout vocalists. When Servais returns to her friends in the second act, her transformation is unbelievable and eye-popping. Connie has truly found herself. But, despite all this talent, it’s Dottie, played to perfection by the wonderful Marissa Rosen, who steals the show. Rosen is known to New York audiences for her stellar, Off-Broadway performance in The Marvelous Wonderettes, as well as for touring nationally in shows like Urinetown, Legally Blonde and Into the Woods. Rosen is hilarious, delivers all her songs with stylish panache and can really dance up a storm. In many ways, this actress provides the heart and soul of this musical.
The production, which premiered in New York two years ago, is directed and brilliantly choreographed in Chicago by Lorin Latarro, a gifted artist whose credits include the Broadway and National Tour of Waitress. The production sports Dana Burkart’s costumes and Campbell Young Associates’ hair, wigs and makeup designs, all of which add so much to each character. Steven C. Kemp’s polished scenic design, enhanced by Nathan W. Scheuer’s lighting and superb projections, might have played better in a smaller, more intimate venue where the show could touch its audience more personally. But what Ms. Latarro’s production accomplishes in this larger venue is slick, polished and highly entertaining, with a positive message about the power of friendship and change.
This new musical is slim on story but big on entertainment value. It succeeds through it’s fine score, creative talent and unending energy. With a terrific, top-notch cast, directed by a gifted director and choreographer and backed by musical director Kara Kesselring’s four-member, female onstage band, this is one more example of supreme, unstoppable girl power.
Broadway in Chicago presents “A Taste of Things to Come” through April 29 at the Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut Street, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.