I had a grin on my face all throughout the sparkling new chamber musical A Hundred Years into the Heart, part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival. That's not to say that this musical theater piece is all smiles and laughter as the show, despite many funny moments, is also a tragic work that charts the fraught family relationships, difficult choices, and conflicted loves of five Italian Americans in Queens. Rather, the perpetual smile on my face was a reflection of the show's fine example of musical theatre craftsmanship, strong storytelling, and character-driven music, proving that musical theater is alive and well.
On the surface, the musical is a story of competing lovers set in the Italian neighborhood of Ridgewood, Queens. The young Stephanie Battista (a plucky Charma Bonanno) is engaged to Vincent Iannuzi (David Bonanno), an adjunct college professor and artist. When a cement contractor Sal Greco (the hunky Jonathan Todd Ross) enters the picture, Stephanie's affections change course and she questions her relationship with Vincent. At the same time, we learn that Sal and Vincent's lives are intimately woven together in an unusual chain of events. When Sal was a baby, he was thrown out of his family's apartment window, only to be caught by Vincent who saved his life. Meanwhile, Carmine Sorrento (Mark Lotito) is trying to rekindle an old romance with his teenage sweetheart, Regina Battista (Barbara Marineau), Stephanie's widowed mother. Over the course of the musical, long-buried secrets are revealed and the characters try to determine if they have made the correct decisions about love, family, and responsibility.
Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer Richard Vetere wrote the book for the show, which is not only packed with suspenseful and surprising plot twists, but also poses complex questions about relationships and fate. Who should we marry in life? The stable reliable academic or the passionate lover? Do we choose our destinies or, like Romeo and Juliet, are our fates written in the stars? Such challenging questions permeate the work and Vetere happily refrains from providing easy answers.
A Hundred Years into the Heart also boasts one of the strongest and most character-driven scores in recent memory. Composer Jeffrey Lodin's music is diverse and melodic and includes jaunty and bouncy songs like the opening number "Carmine, Open the Wine," the Italian-inflected number "Regina," and the poignant and moving "There's More Than One Way . . . ," delivered at the show's conclusion. Lodin's work is part traditional Broadway melody coupled with a distinctly contemporary musical sound whose depth and complexity evokes the work of current composers Michael John LaChiusa and Jason Robert Brown. William Squier easily complements Lodin's work with lyrics that are insightful, resonant, and delightfully surprising. Rhyming "Mineola" with "diet cola" and "caulking tubs" with "digging shrubs," Squier finds specific language to define each of Vetere's characters while gracefully advancing the story.
Lodin and Squier's songs are complex compositions that pay off on many levels. Take Regina's song, "Your Choice, You Choose," in which Regina urges her daughter to pick food items for her upcoming wedding reception. Though Stephanie's "simple" choice is whether or not to choose the penne or the rigatoni, given her indecisiveness between whether to marry Vincent or Sal, it soon becomes apparent that larger and more difficult choices are at stake. That Regina herself has had to make some troubling decisions about love and marriage in her own life only further enriches the layers of this deceptively simple and sprightly number.
It also doesn't hurt that the writers are blessed with one of the finest ensembles around, each person worthy of individual mention and praise. Broadway regular Barbara Marineau is fierce and funny as Stephanie's mother and finds genuine on-stage chemistry with Mark Lotito who plays her one-time love interest Carmine. Lotito is a smooth charmer as the street-wise Carmine who also serves as the musical's narrator, commenting on and tying together the show's multiple plot twists. David Bonanno as the erudite academic Vincent possesses a beautiful piercing tenor voice that lends a sense of angst and passion to his role as Stephanie's spurned lover. Jonathan Todd Ross brings a raffish Billy Bigelow-esque masculinity to the role of Sal, particularly in his exciting solo "She Should See Me." Finally, Charma Bonanno is a winning and strong-willed Stephanie who demonstrates the resolve to stand behind her choices when push comes to shove. Director Brett Bernardini seamlessly weaves the show's characters together in inventive combinations and patterns, keeping the scenes moving at a brisk pace.
Despite the intimate size of the show's cast, A Hundred Years into the Heart packs a wallop of emotional force and musical intensity. It is sure to find a home in regional theaters across the country where its themes of lust, fate, and family will appeal to audiences of all backgrounds. In the meantime, New York audiences should be sure to catch what is a polished production of a dazzling new show.
New York Musical Theatre Festival