To Master the Art at Broadway Playhouse: Theater review
TimeLine's 2010 hit bio of Julia and Paul Child returns in a commercial transfer, with most of its original cast intact.
"I'm just taking a few centuries of French culinary tradition and translating it into something they can understand in Cincinatti," says the awkward, sonorous American in Paris, with a how-hard-can-that-be shrug of her gawky shoulders. The lady in question is the soon to be iconic Julia Child (Karen Janes Woditsch), hard at work on the seminal cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking—a process that takes a toll on her husband, Paul (Craig Spidle). Or at least it seems to in one scene of William Brown and Doug Frew's charming but somewhat flustered stage bio, first seen at TimeLine Theatre Company in 2010 and now remounted on the Mag Mile, backed by the Chicago Commercial Collective and presented as part of Broadway in Chicago's subscription season.
The playwrights make a few feints at being as interested in Paul's life as in Julia's, or in chronicling their unique romance. But while Paul Child was an interesting character in his own right—the two met as WWII-era employees of the OSS, and it was Paul's State Department job with the U.S. Information Service that brought the pair to France—the cook is really the main attraction; moments touching on Paul's frustrations with his U.S. government bosses and the growth of McCarthyism back home feel oddly out of place amid Julia's Le Cordon Bleu classes and recipe testing.
The show's leading strength is its leading actor. Woditsch is thoroughly delightful, embodying Julia's affable forthrightness and "that fluty voice," as another character puts it, without resorting to Streep-y imitation. She also maneuvers through the script's often clunkily expository passages with enough skill and velocity that you almost don't notice the history-lesson cramming. Fine supporting turns from the likes of Jeannie Affelder as Child's co-author, Simca Beck, and Sam Ashdown as a Cordon Bleu classmate from Carolina join with warm environs created by scenic designer Keith Pitts, lighting by Charles Cooper and music by Andrew Hansen to make this, if not a four-course meal, at least a tasty morsel.