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"Affair" to Remember Actress Lori Wilner has watched "A Catered Affair" bloom into a sepia-toned drama that packs a wallop.
"There are no jazz hands here, and no spangles," says Lori Wilner, now appearing in the new Broadway musical A Catered Affair. Indeed, the sepia-toned show, an adaptation by Harvey Fierstein of Paddy Chayefsky's 1955 teleplay, is a telling reminder that "musical" need not automatically mean "musical comedy."

"It is a unique theatrical experience," says Wilner, who for a time played Golde opposite Fierstein's Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, and who has been with A Catered Affair since early readings. "Harvey has been very true to Chayefsky's original teleplay, which was a small, dark, gritty human story. Both Harvey and director John Doyle stayed very true to that tone, and I think they've created something new here. They've merged the worlds of a more traditional play with a musical. It's a bit like Odets set to music. And why can't a musical be that real and non-heightened?"

Why not, indeed? A Queens native, Wilner has done more straight dramas (The Diary of Anne Frank, Awake and Sing!, Everett Beekin) than musicals, and the rest of the Catered cast is packed with powerhouse performers practiced at delivering substance along with their songs: Faith Prince, Tom Wopat, Leslie Kritzer, Matt Cavenaugh, Philip Hoffman and Fierstein himself. The result each night, Wilner says, is extremely gratifying.

"This show makes such a strong connection with the audience," Wilner says. "You can feel it. As the later scenes get very emotional, you can hear gasps. It's really exciting to hear that. The play packs a wallop."

In an earlier version of the show that previewed at the Old Globe in San Diego, Wilner reports, A Catered Affair was "a little more musical and a little bit more comedy. In general it was a little lighter and brighter and had more color. I think that John and Harvey made a decision to focus the story with a laser beam, and to take away some of the comic relief. You don't want the steam escaping."

Wilner understands why the changes were made--even if it meant a slight reduction in her part.

"The women in the windows had a lot more to do--we were sort of the Greek chorus," Wilner says of a trio of chattering neighbors who help set the Bronx scene at the top of the show, though not with a big, flashy opening number. "Now we have Harvey as a sort of omniscient narrator--like in The Glass Menagerie, where he comes out and creates this world, so it's his memory play. That makes him serve the purpose of the Greek chorus, in a way, so we have less to do."

In addition, the show's look has become more monochromatic since San Diego, so that it almost looks "like the people are coming out of the sienna prints," Wilner says, citing David Gallo's sets, Ann Hould-Ward's costumes and Brian MacDevitt's lights. "We used to have on colorful house dresses, but it's like we're walking directly out of the world of the past."

Wilner describes how Doyle, the English director who made a splash stateside with his revivals of Sweeney Todd and Company, politely stopped the Broadway dress rehearsal about 20 minutes in.

"He asked all the women to wash off all their makeup," Wilner recalls. "He said, 'When I see those bright shining faces, I have an expectation of musical theatre. And bring your voices down to a conversational level--let your projection be the sound mixer's problem.' "

Wilner's big scene in the show is as Mrs. Halloran, a middle-class wife who labors to hide her mortification at her son's fiancée's more downscale family--which includes the gay florist indelibly played by Fierstein. Their scene and song, "Immediate Family," also changed en route to the Main Stem.

"The song originally was more traditional, but now it's just sort of woven in--it appears and disappears," Wilner says. "And the scene has toned down; it was much broader, with much more physical comedy, a lot more high-jinks. It was decided that we didn't need to go that far. Harvey is such a wonderful comedian, and people expect a certain larger-than-life quality from him; but everyone knows he can do that and do that well. What would happen if we put the reins on?"

Wilner's adaptability and collaborative ease may have something to do with her frequent work as an understudy on Broadway: She did so in Fiddler and in The Diary of Anne Frank, and in A Catered Affair, she's understudying the meaty role of Aggie, the willful working-class mother of the bride, played devastatingly by Faith Prince.

"Your job as an understudy is to soak up as much as you can by osmosis and do your own work on the side," Wilner says, mentioning the reality that most understudies don't tend to get rehearsals, particularly not mid-run. "It's a strange job. You don't have time to warm up and get your sea legs. You have to go out and blast on. It's terrifying and thrilling at the same time."

She recalls fondly going on for Sophie Hayden with only a few hours notice. She says she "sailed through purely on adrenaline." Her reward? In the audience that day was Christopher Reeve, whom she got the chance to meet. "He was so extraordinarily gracious and generous.I told him it was my first performance, and that I was an understudy, and he said he would have had no idea. As a fellow actor, he was just very understanding."

Who needs jazz hands when you've got Superman's endorsement?

Click here for more information about A Catered Affair.