If any show demonstrates the difference between staging and content, it’s “A Taste of Things to Come,” a world premiere musical at New Hope’s Bucks County Playhouse.
The production, directed and choreographed by the resourceful Lorin Latarro, is brightly entertaining and constant fun. Latarro gives “Taste” the sweep of one big happy dance. It moves constantly and with verve. The non-stop gestures and poses taken by a talented cast of four suit the characters and situations they embellish.
Though craftily stylized, and certainly out of kilter with the way friends working together in a kitchen stand or converse, each movement seems natural and becomes its own witty embellishment or clever illustration of what a character is saying.
Latarro has made the highly orchestrated seem authentic and routine. Even a hula hoop fits unjarringly into “Taste’s” forward-march flow. To her further credit, Latarro builds some of her smart and energetic dance numbers from movements the characters have used while delivering their dialogue. There’s a cohesion to “A Taste of Things to Come” that is appealing and adds up to a continuous good time.
Theater gets its full due. Drama is a different story. Latarro’s cunning bag of tricks cannot conceal the shallowness or triteness of Debra Barsha and Hollye Levin’s book and lyrics.
Nothing could. The wonder is “A Taste of Things to Come” sails on so pleasingly when it covers frequently trod territory, women’s advancements since the 1960s, with nothing new or incisive to say.
The best parts of Barsha and Levin’s book are incidental lines that sound offhand rather than delivered with an expositional purpose, such as a pregnant character’s casual remark about vaunted child psychologist, Dr. Spock, advising expectant mothers to smoke and have two cocktails a day to calm their nerves; or from the slapdash standards of American cooking in the 1950s, when the characters’ idea of a sophisticated entree is dumping shrimp from a can into a sauce that also takes no effort, instinct, or culinary imagination.
In general the authors have their characters mark time with chatter that leads to a musical number. The chatter occasionally has a purpose, but it never supplies the insight or poignancy about women’s lives for which Barsha and Levin aim. Their music fares better, especially in the first act when it takes its rhythms and sounds from hits from the 1950s.
Their lyrics, except in a few specialty tunes — such as one in which a character sings about her reliance on diet pills, tranquilizers, and uppers to get through her day with four children — are execrable, full of lazy rhymes and trivial thoughts.
Creativity in “A Taste of Things to Come” derives from Latarro’s inexhaustible ingenuity and four lively and likable performances by Erin Mackey, Ariana Shore, Gina Naomi Baez, and the consistently marvelous Allison Guinn. They keep a tempo and spirit that lead to an admirably amusing show.
Barsha and Levin never get deep, substantial, or courageous enough to match the contribution coming from Latarro or the cast.
The women discuss matters of the day and have superficial arguments about some of them, but little seems to come from the heart. It’s almost as if the authors made a list of topics from the 1950s and ’60s and found ways to bring them up mildly. Even heady subjects, such as affairs out of wedlock or hiding personal information in an effort to fit in with a majority, are treated fleetingly and without passion or purpose.
Conflicts are on paper, in the script. They never take hold on stage because Barsha and Levin tread lightly and don’t give Latarro or the company the chance to be dramatic. Key matters are addressed in narrations by Shore’s character, who hosts her friends in her kitchen.
The premise of “A Taste of Things to Come” is to show how conventions and misinformation in the 1950s led women to conform and lead lives counter to their desires or intentions. The first act, set in 1957, depicts a meeting of the Wednesday Winnetka (Ill.) Cooking Club, through which four friends from childhood gather to prepare a meal and catch up with the events of their individual weeks.
Joan (Shore) wants to be a writer and keeps a journal of the “cooking” sessions. Agnes (Baez) has ambitions to be an actress and suspects she might be adopted. Connie (Mackey) has married but is carrying the child of another man — a black man — a fact that gets minimum treatment from Barsha and Levin. Dottie (Guinn) married young and has a baby a year. She is and will remain the most conservative and conventional of the quartet, her collection of pills aside.
A second act, set in 1967, shows the Winnetka friends reuniting after 10 years, during which Agnes, now Maria, has become a soap opera star, Connie went to Trinidad with her biracial son and his father, and Joan forged a career as an advice columnist.
Nostalgia works where storytelling doesn’t. Scenes of Ann-Margret on “Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour” television show or a Betty Crocker ad, from the 1950s, integrated well by Latarro on a handy upstage screen, create a frisson of recognition and approval from the BCP audience.
The best songs are those that revolve about a character, such as “Just in Case,” or that recall something popular, such as “Dear Abby.” An anthem of sorts called “Whomp” and with a lyric that makes you think of Willy Wonka’s oompa loompas, is a true dud, lacking spirit or grace.
Erin Mackey has a gorgeous voice that stands out among the ensemble. Heavy-set Allison Guinn has a lithe woman’s moves and delivers the show’s best zingers while providing some needed attitude as Dottie.
Latarro gets great mileage from props like rolling pins, aprons, and rows of kitchen drawers. Dana Burkart’s costume are perfect, as is Steven C. Kemp’s set.
A Taste of Things to Come, Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, New Hope, Pennsylvania. Tuesday through Thursday, 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m., and Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday, 2 p.m., through Sunday, February 21. $35. 215-862-2121 or www.bcptheater.org.