Also see Ann's review of Red
You may be familiar with the term "puttanesca" as it refers to the Italian pasta sauce made from tomatoes, black olives, and garlic. The reference here, however, is to the source of the word, which is "puttana," Italian for "whore." This spicy café with the Puttanesca nickname is a tavern officially named Café Rosa in 1948 Amsterdam and the meeting (and drinking, singing, dancing, and joking) place of the legal local prostitutes, in particular French madam The Marquesa (Jilline Ringle); German veteran lady of the evening, The Baroness (Lenora Nemetz); and aspiring British "working girl," The Duchess (Megan Hilty). In Cafe Puttanesca, each lady has her own story, presented in varying degrees of detail through witty and ribald reparté and song & dance, accompanied by the tavern's Irish Owner (Daniel Krell) and The Piano Player (Thomas Wesley Douglas). (And, yes, there is an Italian connection - the bartender's wife, Rosa, unseen but not unheard for most of the show, is the Cook of Italian heritage).
Did I say "ribald"? This show (by Terrence J. Nolen and Michael Ogborn) is chock full of jokes, innuendos, and unsubtle naughty limericks - appropriate to the risqué professions they characterize. If you make it past the Owner's first humorous story without too much of a squirm, you will enjoy the rest of the evening's sexy, clever and original drollery. Songs by the talented Michael Ogborn are in the vein of early 20th century cabaret specialties and demand considerable talent from the actors on stage. In this production, the challenge is met, and we are presented with a rollicking evening of laughter and fun.
Cafe Puttanesca is presented through a partnership between the City Theatre and Philadelphia's Arden Theatre, where the world premiere of the play was produced. What transferred from Philadelphia was one performer (Ringle), the wonderful set and costumes, and the basis for the show (apparently redirected characters and a move to a flashback scenario are among the considerable changes). The result is a show with two rich roles seemingly tailored for Ringle and Nemetz, and opportunities to shine for Krell and Hilty. Nolen's effective directing keeps the pace quick even during poignant moments.
The evening we see looked back upon by the cafe's owner is the occasion of The Baroness leaving the life for the more pedestrian life as the wife of an American, as she bids farewell to Amsterdam and sets off for Pennsylvania, U.S.A. The Baroness has a mixed history with The Marquesa, but it is apparent that there is genuine affection and respect among all three women. The storyline gives the barest of foundations for what is more a revue than a play, but provides the setup for a very entertaining finale.
(l-r) Lenora Nemetz, Megan Hilty,
Daniel Krell, and Jilline Ringle
One after the other, the songs of Cafe Puttanesca are spotlight pieces for each performer, and they in turn offer facets of the personalities and lives of each of the characters. Jilline Ringle, a Pittsburgh favorite after record-breaking sold out runs of her solo shows Mondo Mangia and La Dolce Vita, absolutely glows in the role of The Marquesa, who is larger than life. Ringle sings every note and plays every gesture to the hilt; she doesn't overplay, but fills the role with life and exuberance, a portrayal as rich as the burgundy velvet of her close fitting and low cut dress. The tricky "Allez-Vous En" shows Ringle knows her way around a lyric. Lenora Nemetz absolutely has the audience in the palm of her hand from the get-go. She is mesmerizing and seems to be having as much fun as those who are watching. Nemetz oozes sexiness (a quality that is aided by her outfit of skirt slit up to "there," leather camisole and jacket) and shows her incredible singing and dancing skills through her songs, particularly "Gypsy in My Purse" and "Oh, How I Miss the Kaiser." The duet for The Baroness and The Marquesa, "Rasputin and the Russian Nun," is very funny and a wonderful showcase for the talents (and stamina) of these two delightful performers.
Megan Hilty, a senior in CMU's musical theatre program, must consider her experience with this cast a very educational "extra credit" assignment. Hilty is a beautiful and confidant actress; she shows a maturity that belies her young age. Her solo songs include a touching "Dreamer's Lament," which alludes to a grim side of the life of The Duchess, and a flashy "Don't Bother the Bee." Hilty has a strong and belty voice and shines most when she has a chance to show it off.
The very versatile local actor Daniel Krell (from Guys and Dolls' Benny Southstreet to Passion's Gorgio) is a fine host for the evening and well cast as The Owner. He's got a great voice and also succeeds in projecting a friendly and comfortable persona from the stage. Stephanie Riso (best known as the General Manager of Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre, but also an actress of note in such productions as Passion, as Fosca) is seen mostly as a blurry figure through the frosted glass window between the tavern and the kitchen. She is constantly reacting to the action outside the kitchen, dancing, singing, and occasionally throwing pots and pans and yelling, but emerges near the end to delight the audience with a beautiful "Per Sempre." Tickling the ivories for nearly the entire near-two-hour show, Thomas Wesley Douglas provides wonderful musical support.
There is considerable choreography in the show, by Deirdre Finnegan, and not just standard moves. The cast really rises to the challenge and performs some pretty amazing dance and near acrobatics. It must be an exhausting workout!
The set by Bob Phillips is a believable reproduction of a '40s cafe, completely outfitted with a bar, tables, kitchen and a jumble of more than a dozen different lighting fixtures hanging from the "ceiling."
Café Puttanesca continues through January 4 at the City's mainstage theater. For schedule and ticket information, call (412) 431-CITY  or visit www.citytheatrecompany.com.