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Romeo and Bernadette: A Musical Tale of Verona and Brooklyn

Theatre Review by James Wilson - January 23, 2020

Michael Notardonato, Michael Marotta, and Nikita Burshteyn
Photo by Russ Rowland
Now in its 51st year, Amas Musical Theatre has had an impressive production record. Just a few of the musicals (and personal favorites) presented by the inestimable company include Bubbling Brown Sugar, 4 Guys Named José... and Una Mujer Named MarĂ­a, Zanna, Don't!, and The Other Josh Cohen. Sadly, its current show, Romeo and Bernadette: A Musical Tale of Verona and Brooklyn, does not nearly reach the very high bar that Amas has set in its first half century.

A big part of the show's problem is its head-scratching premise. Set in Brooklyn in 1960, the story begins with a smitten young man (Michael Notardonato) who has taken his date (Ari Raskin), a college English major, to see a community theatre production of Romeo and Juliet. When the girl is so distraught over the tragic ending and unwilling to go with the guy back to his apartment, he informs her that she did not get the complete story by half. In the full account, Romeo actually knocked back the Friar's sleeping potion, not poison, and he slept for 500 years.

Upon awaking in Verona in 1960, Romeo (Nikita Burshteyn) thinks he sees Juliet going into the opera house. Actually, the girl he has followed is a mafia princess named Bernadette (Anna Kostakis), who is there with her mother Camille (Judy McLane), father Sal (Carlos Lopez) who is the head of the notorious Penza family, and the omnipresent bodyguard, Lips (Viet Vo). Romeo is utterly convinced (for reasons that are not quite clear) that the trash-talking girl from Brooklyn is his Juliet, so he follows the family back to the States.

In New York City, Romeo endears himself to the rival crime family led by Don Del Canto (Michael Marotta) and his son Dino (Notardonato). Dino is a cross between Benvolio and Henry Higgins as he teaches Romeo to foreswear his Elizabethan discourse and pepper his lingo with "shu-ahs," "un-buh-lievables," and "fuh-gedda-bout-its."

To quote another Shakespeare play, "The course of true love never did run smooth," and Romeo is caught between two warring crime families. Even worse, he has to contend with Bernadette's trigger-happy fiancé Tito Titone (Zach Schanne). Five hundred years later, it seems Romeo's stars are still not in alignment.

[Coincidentally, last spring another musical with an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet with an Italian, mid-twentieth-century inflection opened in New York. Juliet's Nurse, the musical within the musical Tootsie, also presents an alternative, comic version of Shakespeare's play.]

Anna Kostakis and Nikita Burshteyn
Photo by Russ Rowland
The book and lyrics for Romeo and Bernadette are by Mark Saltzman, and a good deal of the jokes rely on hoary Italian-American stereotypes. The humor often eschews cleverness for crassness. Take, for example, how Bernadette expresses her distaste for opera: "This kinda music makes me wanna give my ears a douche." There are, however, some sparks of wit, particularly in sly references to Shakespeare. For instance, in preparation for the upcoming wedding, the characters visit the "Florist of Arden," and there is also a fleeting tribute to West Side Story. Unfortunately, these inspired moments are rare.

The music is adapted from classic Italian melodies, and many instantly call to mind performances by Dean Martin, Vic Damone, and Frankie Laine. "Boom! In Love," "A World Away," and "O, for a Song" seem like they could have been taken right off the hit parade in 1960. Overall, the songs are very agreeable (and there are a lot of them), but added to the worn-out mafia jokes and excessive and cartoonish Brooklynese, the effect is less homage than recycled and repackaged.

Justin Ross Cohen directs and choreographed, and the cast is uniformly excellent. Standouts include McLane, who finds just the right balance between broad comedy and poignant sentimentality, and she kills her songs. As Dino, Notardonato has the bad-boy charm and vocal smoothness of a Rat Pack inductee. In a range of comic roles, including a fey florist, cane-wielding Martha Graham acolyte, and a gossipy dressmaker, Troy Valjean Rucker gets a fair share of laughs.

Walt Spangler's astute scenic design consists of a series of white, moveable scaffolding that resembles the super-mod, geometric studio sets of 1960s television variety shows. Ken Billington's warm lighting helps evoke feelings of wistfulness. Most impressively, Fabio Toblini and Joseph Shrope's costumes adroitly merge period attire, comically vulgar frocks, and playful nostalgic fashion. It is too bad the musical is not able to accomplish a similar balancing act.

Romeo and Bernadette: A Musical Tale of Verona and Brooklyn
Through February 16, 2020
Amas Musical Theatre, A.R.T./ New York Theatres Mezzanine Theatre, 502 W. 53rd Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: