By Barsha and Hollye Levin.
At: Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut St. Tickets: $30-$75. Tickets: $30-$69. BroadwayinChicago.com . Runs through: April 29
In the second act of A Taste of Things to Come, a Latina character previously played as an ethnically non-specific woman demands to be called "Maria Magenta" and reveals hitherto unknown "Hispanic" roots. She sings this:
"Maria likes it spicy/With her hot sauce on the side/Maria loves it spicy/she likes her beans refried/She needs the whole enchilada/to keep her satisfied." Sweet Cheez-Whiz on a Triscuit. Even if you buy into the nominal context the song comes with, referring to Latinas as "spicy" and Latinos as "enchiladas is #problematic. At best. Ditto putting a glistening blonde onstage and having her be a WASP in act one and speaking in a generic Caribbean accent in act two.
Here's the thing. I want to whole-heartedly support this show. It was written by women and features an all-female cast, an all-female band and a female director/choreographer. Composers/lyricists Debra Barsha and Hollye Levin have fought to make a place for themselves in a field that is overwhelmingly male.
A Taste of Things to Come is, however, pretty unsupportable. Talking about Latinx in terms of spicy food and isn't the only issue here. The characters are cliched. The staging is troubled. The music is pleasant but as forgettable as a K-Tel ad. Could director/choreographer Lorin Latarro have saved this show? It's hard to imagine this script working under any circumstances.
Taste unfolds in a kitchen as four best friends talk and ( nominally ) cook. The first act is set in 1957. The second act is in 1967. The first act has the women trying to win a recipe sweepstakes by creating a meal with "international flair" ( think Lime Pretzel Jell-O salad, canned crab canapÃƒ©s and shrimp dijon ). The second act jumps to 1967, when the women smoke "Mary Jane," talk about bra burning and use a lot of words like "groovy" and "you dig" and "far out."
The characters are not characters but types: There's the daffy blonde; the smart, perky brunette; the red-headed mother of a many small children and the raven-haired single vixen. Everything unfolds in a Winnetka kitchen.
In the first act the gals establish their defining traits and run through the funny-in-retrospect-but-not-really edicts of the time: Pregnant women should not drink milk. You want the babies bones soft so he can come through the birth canal more easily. If you make bad coffee, your husband might leave you. There is no female trouble that cannot be remedied with Miltown/Darvon/Dexedrine/Benzedrine.
In the second act, the women spill secrets they've uncovered about their pasts and give each other updates on their lives They sing of empowerment. ( "Don't define me with just one noun/ I got a whole lotta shakin' goin' down." )
About the staging: the first act kitchen features a kitchen window where videos are projected. When the women sing of burning sexual heat, the video is of fire. When they sing about being in the soup aisle at the grocery store, we get video of a soup aisle at a grocery store. Sometimes the lyrics are spelled out. This is both distracting and mind-numbingly on-the-nose.
The music throughout is fine; the first act mines the sounds of '50s rock and pop in the first act. A gentle version of the sounds of the '60s informs the second act. The kitchen set works, and the backdrop of retro-ads for Lucky Strikes, Necco Wafers and Creamola is striking and fun.
But the show only delivers only a vapid view of the decades its purports to explore. It's as shallow as the ads or the era. And as problematic.