From Betty Crocker to Betty Friedan, womanhood in the 1950s and 1960s gets a musical treatment in the 2016 Off Broadway musical “A Taste of Things to Come,” now in its Chicago debut at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place.
The show, featuring book, music and lyrics by Debra Barsha and Hollye Levin, certainly features some familiar territory. The show centers on a quartet of women from north suburban Winnetka who get together Wednesday afternoons for a cooking club. The first act is set in 1957 and features the gals trying to put together an entry for a Betty Crocker cooking contest that features a $50,000 prize. The theme for the contest is international flair – which, to 1957 Winnetka homemakers means the most exotic recipe they come up with is for crab Rangoon.
‘A TASTE OF THINGS TO COME’
When: Through April 29
Where: Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut
Joan (an energetic Cortney Wolfson) is the ringleader, narrator and bubbly host (she introduced each of her gal pals as “my best friend – don’t tell the others.”) Connie (a fittingly emotional Libby Servais) is a perky blonde who seemingly has the perfect marriage/husband and is very pregnant. Dottie (a proper yet funny Marissa Rosen) is the conservative of the group – she can’t bear to hear the word “breast” said out loud despite having given birth to multiple sets of twins as the quartet’s resident “baby machine.” Agnes (Linedy Genao adding some much-needed heat to the mix) is the last single gal left in the group of high school friends. She always wears curlers to the supermarket so the other women in town think she has a date that evening (even when she doesn’t). Agnes is already beginning to test the boundaries of what is possible for women in the 1950s and realizes her future lies somewhere outside of suburbia. Their Wednesday get-togethers are billed as a cooking club, but very little time is spent actually cooking.
The second act picks up a decade later as the women’s movement, civil rights and the Vietnam War are in the process of forever altering the American cultural and political landscapes. Change has also come to the quartet’s lives, too. Joan is the only one who still lives in the neighborhood (though her kitchen has been given a period-perfect update complete with plastic mod furniture and a bean bag chair). Dottie has moved across town and has a son serving in Vietnam. Both Connie and Agnes have left Winnetka far behind (for reasons I won’t spoil here). Suffice it to say the second act reunion reveals more secrets, grudges, gossip and humor.
Directed and choreographed by Lorin Latarro, the pace in the first act is a bit slow (by comparison, the second act seems to speed to a conclusion.) Kara Kesselring’s music direction (she also plays keyboards and conducts the all-woman band) highlights tight, four-part harmony that is blended particularly well. Each of the characters is given their moment to shine, of course, but it is the ensemble vocal work that is the strongest.
The songs are a pastiche of Doo-wop, blues and pop and cover everything from advice columnists (“Dear Abby”) and gossip (“Didja Hear”) to motherhood (“Just a Mom”). “Blessing in Disguise,” the show’s 11th-hour moment also happens to be the best song in the score blessed by some lovely moments shared between Connie and Agnes.
Nostalgic and perhaps too familiar, the show feels like a missed opportunity to be something bigger. Long before Reaganomics sent the role of stay-at-home mom out of the reach of much of the middle-class, and the microwave freed cooks from the shackles of hours preparing meals over stoves, the kitchen – and perhaps more importantly – the kitchen table — was a sacred place. Up until at least the early ‘80s, it remained the epicenter of the neighborhood for many women, a place where laughter, tears, gossip and recipes were all freely shared over a cup of coffee (and sometimes, something a bit stronger).
None of the revelations in the show are unexpected. Unfortunately, in striving for universal truth, “A Taste of Things to Come” serves up a dish that is bland and generic. Like a box cake mix, it is certainly a palatable affair, but it is missing an ingredient or two to make it unique.
Misha Davenport is a Chicago-based freelance writer.