Barry Manilow's Copacabana

Tony Yazbeck and
Chandra L. Schwartz

It's back by popular demand—Barry Manilow's Copacabana was the biggest vote-getter in last year's end of the season CLO survey. So the show is making a return to the line-up nine years after kicking off a brief national tour. Pittsburgh audiences must be ready for some light fare with a show they know will never cause "substance" abuse. If you're willing to sit back and smile a lot, groan a bit, and hum a song for days after ... Copacabana is a must-see.

The show takes its title as well as its plot from Manilow's 1970s pop chart topping single (book by Manilow, Jack Feldman and Bruce Sussman). With a little fleshing out, the story is in the song's spare lyrics (except the last verse). Her name was Lola, she was a showgirl ... and she was from Oklahoma and is played her quite winningly by cute and petite Chandra L. Schwartz. The actress, who is about to go into the Wicked tour as Glinda, has a terrific voice and really soars here, especially when she's allowed out of "hayseed" mode. Tony always tended bar ... Tony's the charming piano-playing, bartending songwriter from Brooklyn who gets stuck on Lola. Tony Yazbeck plays Tony, as well as the part of Stephen, a modern-day musical writer who frames the story—as the show starts, Stephen is writing a new musical (and ignoring his wife, played by Ms. Schwartz). That musical is the one we see on stage; that it is all played out from Stephen's creative imagination allows for some situational comedy that breaks up (a little) the pure fluff of the Copacabana story. Stepehen in present day, and the musical he writes is set in 1947 and has the feel of a golden-age musical.

His name was Rico, he wore a diamond ... and he is a bad, bad man, played with steely-eyed yet winking menace by Robert Cuccioli. The sleazy Italian mobster steals Lola from Copa owner Sam Silver (perfectly cast Stephen Berger, with a terrific stage entrance) and takes her to Havana to headline at his club. Apparently, Rico has done this before, and the fate of the girls he has whisked away is dark and suspicious (though one is admittedly "pushing up the daisies). One of his previous conquests is still on hand, and is in love with and abused by Rico—Elise Santora shows a depth of character unexpected in a show like this, and she convincingly presents the (according to Rico) over the hill chorus headliner. There was blood and a single gun shot; But just who shot who? ... and that's how the show-within-a-show ends, taking up pretty much the whole second act. Everything you might expect to happen at the very end does indeed happen—ever after.

Sally Wilfert and Stephen Berger
Yet unmentioned is Gladys, the Eve Arden-like sidekick for Sam, played by Sally Wilfert. Wilfert delivers all around, though saddled with some deadly patter in the song "When You're a Copa Girl," which is otherwise a fun piece for her. Tim Hartman contributes successfully in several supporting roles.

About that dialogue ... there are the expected "bad jokes"—it is, after all, a show that the cast, characters and audience don't take seriously—but there are funny bad jokes and there are simply bad ones. Copacabana has its share of both. The songs (music by Manilow; lyrics by Bruce Sussman and Jack Feldman) have well crafted catchy tunes of several different styles and fit the plot for the most part (the poppy "Sweet Heaven" sounds out of place). "Who Needs to Dream" shows Yazbeck's range; "I Gotta Be Bad" is a great chorus girl song; and the comedy song "Who Am I Kidding" is a cute showpiece for the supporting players.

The cast really does a fine job with what they've got. Yazbeck shows he's not only a handsome dancer with a great voice—he can act, too, and is an appealing leading man with a great rapport with the audience. Schwartz is a firecracker with a big, solid voice. I like the endless-audition scene featuring "Man Wanted," and she does a great job with the whole bit. Berger, Wilfert and Hartman are accomplished comedic actors; they know where the top is, and they don't go over it, but they get every possible laugh. Credit, also, goes to director Charles Repole. At only 2 hours (with intermission), there are still some built-in slow spots, but he does a nice job of keeping up the pace up without cutting.

Heartfelt thanks, once again, to Tom Helm and his swell 16 (count 'em, 16!) member orchestra, which bolsters tremendously the songs and performances.

I think there's really a pretty good musical here if a little trimming were done, the dance pieces stepped up (choreography by John MacInnis is fine, but if a slightly larger ensemble were cast specifically for this show, he—and they—could do more) and the corniest dialogue improved. As is, it's solid fun, but don't use your most critical eye.

Copacabana continues at the Benedum Center through August 2. The season ender will be Into the Woods, running August 4-9. For ticket and performance information, visit or call (412) 471-6070.

Photos: Matt Polk

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-- Ann Miner

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