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Off Broadway


Opa!

Part of the
9th Annual Midtown International Theatre Festival

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

Opa!
The Cast.
Photo by Erica Parise.

Even if a musical is set on a Greek island, it has to earn punctuation in its title. At least Mamma Mia!’s international-super-mega-hit status excuses its presumptuous exclamation point. But the one attached to Opa!, which is playing at the TBG Theater, is flat-out silly, because the show is flat-out silly: a well-meaning, and completely uninvolving comic soap opera that doesn’t so much pack the punch of Greek coffee as it does that of Greek water.

The story itself, devised by librettists Mari Carras and Laurel Ollstein, is not an unpromising one. There are plenty of tantalizing possibilities in relating how a tiny, isolated isle named Elia suddenly achieves its generations-old dream of being put (literally) on the map. Issues of tradition versus assimilation, culture versus commerce, and romance versus reality might have been handled by any number of other musicals, but Greece’s unique history and people could make for one like no other.

Unfortunately, all the potential originality is buried beneath mountains of clichés that would hardly suffice for a musical set in the U.S. The newly elected mayor, Costa (Joseph Callari), must struggle to keep his townspeople happy and in line. Costa’s perpetually unsatisfied wife Sophia (Carolee Goodgold) has to keep her discontent in check while arranging a proper marriage for her daughter Eleni (Abigail Hardin). Manos (Patrick Riviere), the godlike soldier who departed the island 20 years ago for success in America is about to make his triumphant return.

Add to this the usual assortment of anonymous clowns - the bumbling anything-for-a-buck duo! the mother desperate for grandchildren! - and you’re bursting with good-natured local flavor. And, of course, everyone simply must keep some secret or other from the rest of the villagers, so that we can flash back to the distant past to see how everything went wrong and see all the deception remedied in a last scene proving how close-knit the community is. (That scene, by the way, makes the finale of William Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors look like a paragon of convincing construction.)

If not for the music by Nicholas Carras and Nicholas Kitsopoulos (who wrote the lyrics with Mari), there’d be little way to identify the setting as Greece rather than Grease. But the lithe melody lines above undulating bass, especially as articulated by the ouzo-buzzed guitars in the four-person band under Micah Young’s musical direction, transport you in a way the rest of the show doesn’t.

So effective is the music, in fact, that you might temporarily not mind the platitude-packed score. A couple of numbers, such as the bitchy opener (“To Complain”), the title song, and a dance solo for Young Costa (Costa Nicolas) at the height of his powers have the right blend of sound and place. But most numbers are angsty ballads about love lost or not yet found, stomping-shouting group numbers about the dangers of lies or women, or simply ear-poppingly generic. (“Open your heart and dare to share,” Costa and Sophia sing, “In love on a Grecian isle.”)

Spiro Veloudos’s direction is mainly traffic control, while Wendy Waring’s choreography revels in swirling motion as it utilizes every grapevine and hand wave you’d expect from Greek dancing. (Amazingly, not a single plate is ever smashed.) The performances are much the same, achieving the necessary but seldom more: Goodgold brings a fair air of decades-stretched disappointment to Sophia, and Hardin is marginally moving at conveying how Eleni doesn’t want to waste the life ahead of her. Deborah Litwak and Natasha Tabandera also garner some laughs as a pair of rickety fortune tellers.

But the rest of the cast, like the words they speak and sing, lacks the personality to make Elia, or Opa!, particularly inviting. The title and its pesky exclamation point might act as a call to enthusiasm, but it’s a cry that’s muted when neither the cast nor the characters can convincingly welcome you in.


Run Time: 2 hours with one intermission
Tickets online, Venue information, and Performance Schedule: 9th Annual Midtown International Theatre Festival