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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Marry Harry: Warm and Melodic Musical Confection
American Theater Group

Also see Bob's reviews of Motherhood Out Loud and Our Town

Jillian Louis and Howie Michael Smith
Employing relationships and situations that have long been employed in sentimental musicals and comedies, along with traditionally styled music, the authors of Marry Harry have created a distinctive, feel good, charming and gentle romantic musical comedy which thoroughly transcends the bland, generic quality that are the bane of most such efforts.

Marry Harry concerns the romance between two warmhearted, immature thirty year olds, Little Harry and Sherri, each of whom is under the chafing thumb of a blithely domineering parent. Little Harry is the cook in Cudicini's, the faltering lower Manhattan restaurant opened by his grandfather forty years earlier and now run by his father, Big Harry. Unbeknownst to his father, Harry has applied for the position of sous chef with celebrity restaurateur Lidia Bastianich. Sherri works for her mother, Francine, who is a hot shot real estate broker and Big Harry's landlord. Mother and daughter are downtown to select a wedding dress for the engaged Sherri at a bridal shop located above the restaurant when Sherri is coldly jilted by her fiancé.

Little Harry and Sherri meet when she and her mother come down to Cudicini's. They had known each other as children, but have not seen each other since her family became financially successful and moved uptown to Park Avenue. Sherri went on to attend a prestigious college. Despite the gap between their educational and economic circumstances (and Francine's sense of superiority over those whom she left behind in "the old neighborhood"), the troubled and vulnerable pair immediately take to one another. So much so that after their first night together they too hastily become engaged to be married.

There is a natural feel and complexity to the characters and relationships, which makes Jennifer Robbin's book play feel like a well made, old fashioned mainstream stage comedy. The lyrics by Michael Biello are supple and, as appropriate, witty, move the plot forward and reflect the peculiarities of speech of the characters.

The music by Dan Martin is traditional, melodious and buoyant, and often is distinctive in a manner that elevates the entire project into unusual, evocative territory. Although I am not a musicologist, I would venture to describe the musical heart of Marry Harry as a contemporary "opera buffo." The most melodious and evocative ballads are lightly operatic, and celebratory and comic songs convey the style of traditional Italian classical and dance music.

The opening song "Harry's Way," a delightful tongue twister of a patter song, gets matters off to a bright and entertaining start as both Harrys and others sound off on Big Harry's policy of rotating Cudicini's cuisine nightly (i.e., Japanese, Mexican, Italian, et al).

"Nonnina's Biscotti" is a song that is sheer bliss. Upon tasting Cudicini's biscotti and ascertaining that they are made from a recipe of Little Harry's grandmother Nonnina, Sherri suggests that Big Harry market them in order to earn sufficient money to save the restaurant. This infectious song is lively, melodious, heartwarming and Italianate. The musical delights continue right through to the lovely closing ballad, a beautifully sung duet for Little Harry and Sherri, "You Opened a Door."

Director Kent Nicholson provides a bright, smooth production brimming with warmth, high energy, and ingratiating, yet dimensional, performances. The lively choreography and musical staging of Wendy Seyb is a major asset in in building and sustaining the production's high spirits. Bethanie Wampol has provided a large attractive set which shows us the preparation area of Cudicini's in substantial detail, and neatly transforms into about half a dozen additional locations. Stefanie Genda's large array of costumes are apt and attractive and take full advantage of the opportunities offered for colorful and amusing costumes (i.e., those for the restaurant's various ethnic food nights).

Jillian Louis wins our hearts as the perky, adorable and vulnerable Sherri. The demanding score is an excellent showcase for her vocal power and range. Howie Michael Smith so natural and believable as the sweetly diffident Little Harry that his strong and accurate singing takes you by surprise. There is strong chemistry between Louis and Smith.

Paul Rutigliano fully captures the diverse dimensions of Big Harry, and his duet with Little Harry, "The Family Way," to Martin's signature style music is another of the production's highlights. Michele Ragusa as Debby, Big Harry's loyal partner whom he treats dismissively and will not marry, displays an appealing sense of irony which she well conveys in her lively lament "Too Busy Running". April Woodall delivers the cranky humor called for as Francine. However, it is a stereotypical role that will be more entertaining when Robbins, director Kent Nicholson or Woodall discover a greater degree of underlying humor and likeability in it.

Andrew Chappelle sharply performs the showiest, most humorous bits, and Jenna Dallacco and Sue-Yenn Ng make solid contributions. Tamara Young is exceptional in the role of Ping, an employee of the restaurant or one of its suppliers who is also a performance artist. As a performance artist, she walks (and dances and sings) with talent and conviction on that thin line between seriousness and parody with which Ping has been written.

Despite Young's superior efforts, to my taste, the presence of the role of Ping itself is a major problem. There are doubtless talented performance artists out there. However, such artists are distinctive performers who are unlikely to fit into the structure, style and mood of a musical play or musical comedy. Thus, when portrayed in such works, whether by intention or not, they appear to be out of synch oddities. The only successful portrayal of such an artist in a musical play that comes to mind is the role of Maureen in Rent. While Jonathan Larson does satirize Maureen's performance art, it is directly related to her relationships with Mark and Joanne. This makes it unusually germane to the musical play. However, as in most musicals in which it appears, in Marry Harry, the performance art is a side show irrelevant and out of synch with everything else on stage. Furthermore, to my taste, it is very old hat and boring. Although book writer Jennifer Robbins has contrived to have it create a major crisis in Sherri and Little Harry's relationship, it does so with a very thin reed that can be cut cleanly away without weakening or distorting any of Marry Harry's structure.

Marry Harry was originally workshopped at AMAS. It was well received when it was produced last July at the New York Music Theatre Festival (NYMF) where I first viewed it. Not resting on their laurels, the talented authors and director Kent Nicholson have made major rewrites since then which have considerably tightened and, particularly in the second act, strengthened it.

At its current stage of development, Marry Harry is already a very entertaining, warm and intelligent musical comedy boasting terrific performances from a outstanding cast of musical theatre talents.

Marry Harry continues performances (Evenings: Thursday, Friday, Saturday 8 PM/ Matinees: Sunday 3 PM) through May 11, 2014, at the American Theatre Group at Hamilton Stage, 360 Hamilton Street, Rahway, New Jersey 07065; Box Office: 732-499-8226; online

Marry Harry Book by Jennifer Robbins; Music by Dan Martin; Lyrics by Michael Biello; Directed by Kent Nicholson

Male Ensemble…………...Andrew Chappelle
Female Ensemble 1….....…….Jenna Dallacco
Sherri…………………………….Jillian Louis
Female Ensemble 2……………..Sue Yenn Ng
Debbie………………………..Michele Ragusa
Big Harry…………………...Danny Rutigliano
Little Harry……………..Howie Michael Smith
Francine………………………...April Woodall
Ping…………………………….Tamara Young

(N.B.: Opera buffa (Italian, English: comic opera) is a genre of opera. It was first used as an informal description of Italian comic operas variously classified by their authors as "commedia in musica," "commedia per musica," "dramma bernesco," "dramma comico," "divertimento giocoso," etc. It is especially associated with developments in Naples in the first half of the 18th century, whence its popularity spread to Rome and northern Italy. It was at first characterized by everyday settings, local dialects, and simple vocal writing (the basso buffo is the associated voice type), the main requirement being clear diction and facility with patter. - excerpted from Wikipedia)

- Bob Rendell

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