Let’s hear it for the girls: ‘A Taste of Things to Come’ at Bucks County Playhouse

Photo: Mandee Kuenzle

Photo: Mandee Kuenzle

By John Dwyer

It is so exciting that the Bucks County Playhouse is continuing its tradition of launching new work, and the latest of these productions is “A Taste of Things to Come.”

It is becoming well-known that if one is looking for a first class mounting of a new play like “Misery” or “Mothers and Sons,” or a new musical like “National Pastime,” there is no finer place in the Northeast to perfect one’s show than New Hope’s Bucks County Playhouse.

Especially exciting about “A Taste of Things to Come” is that it is a world premier. The show is a clarion call to women to empower themselves, and takes us on a journey of empowerment for four women who we meet at the home of Joan Smith (Ariana Shore) for a weekly cooking get-together in 1957 in Winetka, Illinois. Their place in society in the 1950s takes up the first act. After intermission, it is 1967, and as Benson and Hedges cigarettes exclaimed in their ad campaign the next year, “You’ve come a long way, baby!”

Beside the hostess, we have Connie Olsen (Erin Mackey), who is in the family way and about to drop when we first meet her, as well as Dottie O’Farrell (Allison Guinn), the slightly overweight and over-opinionated baby machine, and lastly, the single woman of the group, sultry Agnes Crookshank (Gina Naomi Vaez).   We open this weekly Wednesday gathering discovering that that pillar of womanhood and best-selling author, Betty Crocker, is having a cooking contest: If you can create the “perfect meal,” you can win a $50,000 first prize, a trip to the New Fountainbleu Hotel in Miami as second prize, or a 12-inch color TV for third prize.

The songs that follow are all original by Debra Barsha and Hollye Levin, and establish character and time and place. They are fun, melodic and serve the piece well. If you are of an age and appreciate boomer trivia, “A Taste of Things to Come” is especially enjoyable. But if there is one criticism of the piece, it is that until the end of Act 1, when we discover a secret that one of the women was keeping, we seem to be going more through list of iconic fifties tidbits and songs that come out of coffee talk (or cooking talk) than songs that emerge from the story line. Think of each woman of “The View” getting a song to talk about something on their mind.

There are many shows whose main calling card is nostalgia with a very thin plot, such as “Forever Plaid” or “Nunsense,” and they are very successful. This show is a new work, and still open to change. The production is good enough in its current state to be popular, and be a money maker. But, if it could be tweaked, I would transition from exposition to action more quickly in Act 1. Having said that, this talented ensemble shines brightly, each member having their own journey, each their own separate songs, and each their own final moment of self discovery.

Allison Guinn gives a bravura performance as Dottie. Her comic timing and physical slapstick do a 180- degree dramatic turn at the beginning of Act 2 that is a testament to this young actor’s skills. Erin Mackey as the pregnant Connie was hilarious in the song “In Limbo.” Gina Naomi Baez was superb in “I’m Outta Here.” And Ariana Shore, from beginning to end, was the glue that held it all together as Joan, our hostess with the “mostest.”

The 1960s section had the requisite drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll.  And it was the most funny, enjoyable drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll that you may have had for a long time. The use of the back kitchen window in Act 1 for projections during dialogue and songs was ingenious. Actual footage of local Winetka girl Ann Margret and commercials of Dorothy Gray cosmetics are delightful, informative, and help create that Eisenhower-era Betty Crocker feel. Kudos to projection designer Stephen Stivo Arnoczy.

The set design gets applause when the curtain rises in both Act 1 and 2. The delicious backdrop to both acts typify the era, and the powder blue cabinetry reminds me of both my house and Beaver Cleaver’s back in the fifties. This is all courtesy of scene designer’s Steven Kemp’s pitch-perfect sense of detail that puts all of us back in Mr. Peabody’s “Way Back Machine” to times gone by.

Lorin Latarro is at the helm as director and choreographer. This is her first time directing, but she is an experienced choreographer whose work has been showcased at the Playhouse before and will be on display soon in the new Broadway musical “Waitress.” She is an expert craftsman, and created a visual feast served to us with a snappy pace. Valuable assists from Dana Burkart (costume designer), Nathan Scheuer (lighting designer), and Matthew Given (sound designer). The all-girl band is equally amazing.

The mission of the Bucks County Playhouse is in part to showcase new work and to offer new opportunities for talent. It is that spirit that makes the Playhouse the community theater to the theater community. “A Taste of Things to Come“ is soul-nourishing, and should prove inspirational for any aspiring theater professional.

The show is playing now at Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope; (215) 862-2121.

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