Take your mother, your daughters, your nieces, your friends. What works in this piece sheds light on the lives of women as they first broke free of restraining traditions – through character, in song, not polemic.
It’s 1957. President Eisenhower is in The White House. We’re in the middle of The Cold War. On The Ed Sullivan Show, Elvis Presley is shown only from the waist up. American Bandstand premiers. Rock Hudson is the national heartthrob. Arkansas calls out the National Guard to prevent African-American students from enrolling in high school. The Civil Rights Commission is established. A first Vietnam casualty is sustained by the U.S. Military. Sputnik I is launched. Sex is not publicly discussed. The hula hoop is introduced.
Allison Guinn, Janet Dacal, Autumn Hurlbert, Paige Faure
We’re in Joan Smith’s Winnetka, Illinois kitchen at a meeting of the Betty Crocker inspired Wednesday Winnetka Women’s Cooking Club. “Betty” herself is briefly seen on a “television screen” that doubles as the picture window when not in use. “I guarantee a perfect cake every time you bake…Or write General Mills, Minneapolis, Minnesota and get your money back,” the sincere black and white figure assures America. (Use of vintage commercials and advertising is inspired.) This is the group’s 17th annual attempt at winning a national contest providing a loose reason to gather. Each has dreams of what to do with the prize.
The club: Joan (Paige Faure), contentedly married to a traveling salesman and taking a journalism course at night. “Don’t be silly, women aren’t journalists,” Dottie comments. No kids. Connie Olsen (Autumn Hurlburt), due to give birth to her first child in three days, is married to Thor who works at J.C. Penney in women’s shoes. There was somethin’ missin’ in his kissin’/But they said I’d look pretty in white…Dottie O’Farrell (Allison Guinn) a good natured “baby machine” with two sets of twins, more conservatively set in her beliefs than the others. Her spouse is a telephone repairman. And Agnes Crookshank (Janet Dacal), who, single, arrives in curlers so neighbors will think she has a date. Agnes aches to make a splash in the entertainment world. “An idea person,” she neither cooks nor sees the need.
Paige Faure, Autumn Hurlbert, Allison Guinn, Janet Dacal
A rousing “Cooking” is followed by “Dear Abby” in which each woman asks a revealing question… Abby I need you, Shoop Shoop Doo Wah…This may be the first choreography that neatly utilizes rolling pins like burlesque props. A song about gossip (an integral part of weekly meetings), finds the ladies in trench coats and shades. Potential scandals are marvelously credible… I was under the dryer, when…(the dryer is a large, overturned, aluminum mixing bowl.) Brava. Songs employ melodic genres of the time.
Joe Bonomo’s manuals of behavior for women (these existed “right next to the gum and mints at the checkout counter”), which three of the women live by, include Ten Easy Steps to the Altar: “1. Be mentally prepared. 2. Sometimes you have to put on an act…” At 23, Agnes is considered a spinster. (Age should be raised a bit to support the cast.) Connie calls Sidney Poitier, a negro, handsome. The word “breast” elicits literal screams of shock and embarrassment.
Images in The Kinsey Report (it’s Joan’s copy) are turned this way and that with wariness and curiosity. The women mourn lack of a bar at which they can congregate like men. “Happy Hour” is ersatz Polynesian. (And fun.) When Connie’s water breaks, the room panics. We find out there’s a really good reason she doesn’t want to call Thor. Unexpected judgments arise. All this may sound comprehensive, but I assure you, there’s much more to learn and enjoy about the ladies.
Allison Guinn, Autumn Hurlbert, Paige Faure, Janet Dacal
Act II opens ten years later. The friends haven’t seen one another since Connie’s baby was born. Joan organizes a reunion with an ulterior motive. Dottie and she still live in Winnetka, the others have traveled to be there. New jobs, different partners and fresh perspectives abound.
There’s a son in Saigon, a biracial coupling, marijuana, women’s lib…lyrics are a bit more cliché: …we put our dreams on layaway; I can fly higher than the stars… a bit less clever, somewhat less musically diverse. Still, there are a few really good songs – Dottie has an hysterical hot mama turn centering on food – everything is directed with imagination and skill, choreography continues zesty and engaging. Joan shares her reason for bringing them together.
Oh, and they cook. “Swedish Meatballs?…The sauce is easy. A jar of grape jelly and a bottle of ketchup.”
Autumn Hurlbert, Allison Guinn, Paige Faure, Janet Dacal
All four actresses, cast to reflect different physical types, move and sing well. Additionally: Allison Guinn (Dottie) is a skilled comedienne with both verbal timing and physical mishap. Janet Dacal makes Agnes’s sexuality and ersatz transformation entirely believable. Autumn Hurlbert (Connie) imbues her character with the groundwork for gradual revelation and wears maternity with appealing humor. Paige Faure (Joan) handles narration with tongue ably in cheek and is a particularly graceful dancer.
Director/Choreographer Lorin Latarro seamlessly integrates movement/dance with kitchen chores and character exposition. Evidence of when and where we are is well planted. Furniture and unlikely props add ample amusement. Every woman appears whole in her attitudes and bearing. A superb job.
The wonderful Set by Steven C. Kemp is a turquoise, yellow and white, component kitchen with checkered linoleum floor. Its back wall features a montage of period advertisements. From starburst clock to chrome and vinyl breakfast set, every detail suits the period in its cheeriest form. The window/video screen is ingenious. Act II, set in 1967, is a smidgen less successful. Not that the change in furniture (and attitude) isn’t spot on, but during a time of breaking out, colors and style oddly grow more, not less conservative. A new back wall of hubcap-like disco lights is jarring.
Dana Burkhart’s Costumes are terrific in Act I, each individual expressed in outfits that work well together on stage. In Act II, however, though apparel is appropriate, the four ensembles look visually dissonant side by side.
The Taste of Things to Come was inspired by the experiences and recipes of Hollye Levin’s mother. Do not fail to read actual recipes of the period posted on a wall at The York. You never know when a tuna and jello mold or bananas hollandaise (with ham) might come in handy.
Photos by Carol Rosegg
Opening: Autumn Hurlbert, Allison Guinn, Paige Faure, Janet Dacal
The York Theatre Company
in association with Staci Levine and What’s Cookin’ LLC. presents
A Taste of Things to Come
Book, Music, and Lyrics: Debra Barsha and Hollye Levin
Music Direction: Gillian Berkowitz
Direction and Choreography: Lorin Latarro
The York Theatre at St. Peter’s
619 Lexington Avenue
Through December 11. 2016