Romeo and Bernadette, A Brooklyn Musical
Romeo and Bernadette is a thin, very light couple of hours of dinner theatre ethnic humor combined with re-orchestrated (with minimal orchestrations) classic Italian melodies. It is often pleasant and at times mildly amusing and, aided by an extraordinarily strong cast, the result is an easygoing light diversion which clearly will please undemanding audiences. Those demanding wit, logic and a bit of substance will demur. This is a modified demurrer. In spite of the fact that my lips kept saying no-no, I eventually found (especially in the second act) that there was yes-yes in my eyes.
The story is presented as a fable cooked up by a Brooklyn guy to get some action from his date, who is depressed after seeing a performance of Romeo and Juliet. Ya see, Romeo actually did not drink poison, but instead drank the sleeping potion prepared for Juliet, so he only appeared dead. Awaking in 1960, he observes Bernadette Penza (a Juliet look alike) who is on vacation in Verona with her mother and father, the don of a Brooklyn Mafia crime family. Believing her to be Juliet, Romeo follows her back to Brooklyn where he is “adopted” by the don of a rival mob family after saving the life of the don’s son, Dino Del Canto. Bernadette is about to be married to a family soldier ... You can figure out the rest, including the fact that a tragic ending is not in store.
Every character is defined by the broadest, hoariest stereotypes. There are no three dimensional people to be seen, only cartoon characters. Yet the cast of ten (I counted eleven actors onstage during the opening scene) manage to convey their essence in full Sunday comics color. All sing their sometimes operatic songs well and bring personality and ebullience to their roles. Their Saturday Night Fever-like line deliveries led a similarly spoken lady sitting near me to observe that, “They got it down real good.”
Natalie Hill as Bernadette has the toughest role of all. She is written as a totally empty headed, foul mouthed, self absorbed, avaricious princess. We see no change in her whatsoever until the penultimate scene. Neither Romeo nor any member of the audience has any reason to care for her. There are two possible solutions for librettist Mark Saltzman. Either she can begin to change from the moment she meets Romeo, or Romeo can realize that she is not his Juliet, yet find that he is drawn to her domineering personality and 20th century sexuality. Hill does manage to flesh out the unpleasant character she plays without making us despise her. This is a serious accomplishment.
Adam Monley is a handsome and personable Romeo who convincingly delivers both his Elizabethan style dialogue and newly acquired “Brooklynese.” Andy Karl as Dino and Rosie De Candia as Dino’s girlfriend, Donna, delightfully convey youthful exuberance, properly putting only the slightest distance between themselves and their roles (Karl and De Candia also play the couple whose date frames this fable). Charles Pistone and Emily Zacharias as Bernadette’s parents present enjoyable comic personas. David Brummel plays Dino’s father straightforwardly.
Vince Trani as Lips, the Penza family bodyguard, delightfully combines a strong voice with an effective low comic persona. Andrew Varela plays Bernadette’s totally miserable fiancé Tito convincingly, yet manages to convey a comic flamboyance that draws us to him. His second act solo to the music of Rossini is one of the evening's highlights.
Last, but certainly not least, is John Paul Almon. Listed as appearing in seven roles, the largest of which is the Penza family priest, he actually makes his strongest impression in the second act where he plays four especially delightful cameo roles: a middle aged father, a gay florist, a female dance instructor, and a seamstress. With varied body language and speech intonation, he is the perfect embodiment of Mark Saltzman’s cartoon characters. His performance brought back memories of the marvelous cameos performed by the sorely missed Laurie Beechman in the original Broadway production of Annie. Bravo, John Paul.
Saltzman seems to throw as many jokes into the mix as he can, but, for the most part, they are either flat or only mildly amusing. Almon gets to deliver some of the best of them. Before the final dress fitting for Bernadette’s wedding, the seamstress states that she always warns the mother of the bride that this session is always disastrous. When asked what she tells the groom’s mother, she responds, “wear beige and keep your mouth shut.”
The music, comprised of about 20 songs, several or more of which will be familiar to most audiences, has been adapted from such composers as Bellini, Rossini and , most often, Paolo Tosti. It is most enjoyable when it is familiar. The romantic lyrics are pedestrian, but some of the comedic ones are clever fun. There is just a small five member orchestra listed, and often it sounds as if the songs are only orchestrated for one or two of them. In any event, it all sounds very thin and tiny.
Many of the songs are just short snippets which are not given any opportunity to develop, and the sometimes updated styles and tempi are uninteresting. For the most part, the music makes little impact. A lot of work needs to be done here, where it could make a real difference. For now, Paper Mill is simply too large a venue for these orchestrations.
The first song to fully develop into an effective theatrical number does not appear until late in the first act. Based on a piece by Leoncavallo, it is known to me in the 1950s pop song lyric, "You’re Breaking My Heart (Cause You’re Leaving)." It is now "There’s Moonlight Tonight Over Brooklyn," and manages to list many Brooklyn landmarks. Yes, you’re right, it is silly, but, it is also fun.
Director Mark Waldrop deserves all the credit in the world for the cast and their performances. However, he must also share the blame for the overall thinness of most of the other aspects of this production.
Michael Anania has designed a unit set with a rounded balcony stage right (with playing space below) and a bridge stage left that transforms into a large variety of settings, a central open area, lots of drops and fly-ins, and a visible bandstand upstage. It is a model of flexibility, spaciousness and eye appeal.
The costumes by Miguel Angel Huidor are evocative and make a nice addition to the visual appeal of the production. There is virtually no choreography.
There is a gratuitous attempt to justify the Italian mob stereotypes along the lines of, 'we have to do this to parallel Shakespeare’s feuding families.' No, guys, you are using Italian mob family humor because audiences like it and it sells tickets. You are not alone, and most audiences do not seem to mind it when it is not done in an offensive broad brush manner. The use of insincere justification is offensive.
It is good to see Paper Mill back in the business of development, but there is little in the way of creative ambition, originality or sophistication here. However, with the substantial help of an exceptionally fine cast, Romeo and Bernadette provides some pleasant, low brow fun. With some rethinking, it could have a future in dinner theatres, summer stock, smaller regional theaters, and with amateur groups. Beyond that, this will be a tough sell, but you never know.Romeo And Bernadette, a Brooklyn Musical. Book and Lyrics by Mark Saltzman /Directed by Mark Waldrop. Cast: John Paul Almon (multiple roles)/ David Brummel (Don Del Canto)/ Rosie De Candia (Donna Dubacek/B’klyn Girl)/ Natalie Hill (Bernadette Penza/Juliet)/ Andy Karl (Dino Del Canto/B’klyn Guy)/ Adam Monley (Romeo)/ Charles Pistone(Sal Penza)/ Vince Trani (Lips)/ Andrew Varela (Tito Titone)/ Emily Zacharias (Camille Penza). Co-produced with Coconut Grove Playhouse.
Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn through March 23, 2003
Tickets - $67 - $30 (and $1 Facility Fee) – Telephone 973-376-4343 e-mail www.papermill.org.