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Regional Reviews: Boston

13 Things About Ed Carpolotti
Merrimack Repertory Theatre

Also see Nancy's review of The Little Prince

Paul Greenwood, Penny Fuller
Virginia Carpolotti may be a fictional personality, but she is alive and well on the stage of the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, embodied by Emmy Award winner and Tony Award nominee Penny Fuller. Based on a character she originated Off-Broadway in Jeffrey Hatcher's Three Viewings, Fuller and Barry Kleinbort (director/book, music, lyrics) have collaborated to adapt the widow's musings from her monologue into the delightful musical 13 Things About Ed Carpolotti. Although ostensibly a one-woman show, she is joined onstage by music director Paul Greenwood at the baby grand piano, various unseen characters (among them an old friend, her daughter and numerous creditors), and the spirit of her late husband.

The last time Fuller performed at MRT, in 2009, she won the Best Supporting Actress IRNE Award for her portrayal of Claire in A Delicate Balance and she would appear to be a front runner in a different category this time around. Quite simply, there is no separation between actor and role as soon as Fuller takes her place on stage in scenic designer Bill Clarke's cozy and dignified living room of the house on Bray Barton. Kleinbort has moved the action from the funeral home setting of Hatcher's play to the Carpolotti residence in order to incorporate the piano and introduce a "musical element." As a result, Virginia is situated in the comfort of her own environment where she is surrounded by cues for the narrative and her reminiscences.

Holding true to the format of the solo act, there is no trace of the fourth wall as Virginia talks directly to the audience as though we are her confessor-friend-advisor bundled into one. It is 1997 in a Northeastern suburb shortly after Ed's death on Christmas Day and the likable widow is in the swirl of grieving and nostalgia, looking back on the memories of their life together as she begins to face an uncertain future. The plot is too delicious to reveal many details, but think of it like peeling the leaves of an artichoke; there are lots of good bites before you get to the heart of the vegetable. Unbeknownst to Virginia, Ed was a wheeler-dealer who left behind an outrageous amount of debt and she is suddenly left holding the (empty) bag as the bill collectors come calling. When she is nervous, Virginia hums, and she has been given about half a million reasons to break into song.

As the composer, Kleinbort provides a lovely, eclectic score that flows seamlessly with the narrative. The songs give us the back story even as they help Virginia recall her youth and happier times. Fuller's voice is a perfect fit because the musical was written especially for her, but her acting allows us to hear the songs in Virginia's voice. There's some fun with a Jerry Lewis impression in "At the Liberty Theater," an overly-optimistic view of the situation in "We're Gonna Be Fine," and a poignant ode to "The House on Bray Barton." Greenwood pairs with Fuller for sweet harmony in "You Are My Happiness," a 50s-style pop ballad that was Virginia's and Ed's song.

The Fuller/Greenwood team is so thoroughly engaging that they could capture and hold our attention on a bare stage, but Virginia's persona is enhanced by Clarke's set and the little details that make up a life, such as the flower arrangement and collection of photographs atop the piano. Brian J. Lilienthal affects the mood of each scene by unobtrusively adjusting the level of lighting or changing the colors projected on the backdrop. Live sound engineer Edrick Smith's contribution is a perfect blend of voice and piano in all of the musical numbers. Wearing his director's hat, Kleinbort establishes an easy pace and draws a nuanced performance from Fuller, with well-executed timing of her speeches, dramatic pauses, and thoughtful facial expressions.

13 Things About Ed Carpolotti owes a debt of gratitude to playwright Hatcher for creating the endearing character of Virginia and finding a new and entertaining way to explore the question of whether or not we can ever really know someone. It was inspired for Fuller and Kleinbort to find the dramatic justification to turn the play into a musical. That isn't always the case, but this duo found the way to make this story sing and remind every one of us of the power of music.

13 Things About Ed Carpolotti, performances through December 21, 2014, at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA; Box Office 978-654-4678 or

Book, Music, & Lyrics by Barry Kleinbort, Based on a play by Jeffrey Hatcher; Music Director, Paul Greenwood; Scenic Designer, Bill Clarke; Lighting Designer, Brian J. Lilienthal; Live Sound Engineer, Edrick Smith; Stage Manager, Casey Leigh Hagwood; Assistant Stage Manager, Peter Crewe; Directed by Barry Kleinbort

Cast: Penny Fuller

Photo: Meghan Moore

- Nancy Grossman

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