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Carmelina

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - January 27, 2019


Jim Stanek, Evan Harrington, Anne L. Nathan, Joey Sorge, Andréa Burns,
Timothy John Smith, Antonio Cipriano, MaryJoanna Grisso
Photo by Ben Strothmann

So, a bit of personal history. It's 1979, and I go to school in Philadelphia, but I get up to New York a lot. One Friday evening in April my friend from Jersey and I go to TKTS and get half-price tickets, probably about $15, for Carmelina, the Alan Jay Lerner-Burton Lane-Joseph Stein musical in previews at the St. James. We love it, the audience seems to love it, and we're convinced we've just seen a new smash. (And after it rings down, we head downtown to catch Barbara Cook's late show at Reno Sweeney's. Those were the days, my friend.) Carmelina opens the following week to a drubbing from the critics, who savage it for being, and almost every reviewer employs the adjective, "old-fashioned." It's gone in a little over two weeks.

But there must be something about Carmelina, because York Theatre Company's Musicals in Mufti has just brought it back for its third airing, the first title to score such a trifecta. Is it old-fashioned? Well, yes, if by old-fashioned you mean witty, well-crafted, romantic, smart about relations between the sexes, and gorgeously melodic. Be aware, though, what's currently at the York isn't your grandfather's Carmelina.

Barry Harman, evidently with the authors' blessing, began revising the piece decades ago, and while the previous two Mufti Carmelinas stuck closer to the 1979 version, a considerably revised one now occupies the stage. The story is basically the same — and pretty much the same as that of Mamma Mia! (Both original production teams denied Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell, a 1968 film comedy with Gina Lollobrigida, to be the source material. Liars!) Once again we're in the Italian village of San Forino in 1961, where Carmelina (Andrea Burns), ostensible widow of an American war hero and mother of the teenage Gia (MaryJoanna Grisso), is dismayed to learn that the American regiment is returning to the town for a reunion. It turns out she had brief liaisons with three soldiers, one left her pregnant, and, not knowing which one's the father, she's been collecting checks from all three. This she explains to her maid, Rosa (Anne L. Nathan), in "Someone in April," a blessedly tuneful, funny, touching tour de force that should grace any Musical Theater Writing 101 class. It humanizes our somewhat mercenary protagonist and sets up the conflict: How will Carmelina maintain the subterfuge with the three possible fathers returning, and what will it do to her fits-and-starts romance with Vittorio (Joey Sorge), the restaurateur who keeps singing her love songs?

Harman keeps all that, but he does some considerable juggling and rewriting — six new lyrics. His work is largely neat and stageworthy, and one lyric, "Love Me Tomorrow," is notably superior to, and more dramatically apt than, the one it replaces. Some prime Lerner goes missing, though — especially "Why Him?", which set up the Carmelina-Vittorio relationship so well 40 years ago. San Forino feels a little undercrowded with this cast of eight, and director Michael Leeds tries to increase the population by inviting a couple from the audience to sit onstage at Vittorio's café. If they ask you, say yes — you'll get wine.

But aside from an unnecessary new framing device, Harman's heavily rewritten book plays just fine, and the score, reconceived and reordered as it is, remains both a model of musical-comedy efficiency and an ample repository of material that, had Carmelina run longer, might have made it into the Great American Songbook. "One More Walk Around the Garden," the tightly harmonized trio of the three still-amorous soldiers (Jim Stanek, Evan Harrington, and Timothy John Smith), is still, as Walter Kerr wrote (he liked the show, but it was a Sunday column and too late), that rarest of things, a quiet show-stopper. "You're a Woman," originally "I'm a Woman," allows Carmelina and Rosa to voice righteous anger about mid-century women's sorry lot. "Sorry as I Am," a Lane melody not in the original, further throws our sympathies to Carmelina, and is richly hummable besides. If not quite up to Lerner and Lane's earlier work on On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, this is a wonderful score, and the program notes speak of hopes for a new recording. Indeed, here's hoping.

Andrea Burns, at first a little pitchy, settled comfortably into Carmelina's range soon enough and nailed her many funny lines. (Explaining why she named her fictional late husband Campbell: "I only knew two American names, Campbell's Soup and Coca-Cola. I couldn't call myself Carmelina Coca-Cola.") Better, she has, as did Georgia Brown, the first Carmelina, an earthy Anna Magnani thing going on that explains why both the local and visiting males would crowd her doorstep. Sorge, aided by some Harman rewrites that give Vittorio more comedy, is less stiff than the original, the Metropolitan basso Cesare Siepi (though Siepi, of course, had a whole lot more voice). Grisso is a comely Gia, and Antonio Cipriano, as Roberto, her would-be boyfriend, guitar-strums attractively through "It's Time for a Love Song." Nobody, though, tops Nathan, who plays Rosa like she's been rehearsing for months instead of six days, and gets laughs that even eluded the estimable original, Grace Keagy. The two-man orchestra, musical director/pianist David Hancock Turner and bassist Joseph Wallace, rushed here and there, but they do know and love their Burton Lane.

It's a rare look at a late work from musical masters, and, as much as it's been tampered with, a fun story that speaks eloquently of spiraling deception, fragile male egos, and parental responsibility. And it launches Mufti's Lerner retrospective, to be followed by two equally rare titles, The Day Before Spring (Frederick Loewe) and Lolita, My Love (John Barry). Old-fashioned? Yep, and to these eyes, the stronger for it. Viewing the current clatter of jukebox musicals, hit movies badly adapted into tuners, and apes ascending the Empire State Building, make it another old-fashioned, please.


Carmelina
Through February 3
The York Theatre Company at Saint Peter's, 619 Lexington Avenue, entrance on East 54th Street, just east of Lexington Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix


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