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Regional Reviews: San Francisco

You Don't Have to Be Italian or Gay to Enjoy Mambo Italiano

Also see Richard's reviews of Epiphanies and Shakespeare in Hollywood

Cathy Fithian, Christopher Maikish and Ana Bayat
Steve Galluccio's refreshing and feel-good comedy Mambo Italiano is currently having its United States premiere at the New Conservatory Theatre Center and it is entrancing audiences both straight and gay. You don't have to be gay or Italian to enjoy the wonderful conservative Catholic Italian family who is "shocked" that their son is gay. It is all done tongue-in-cheek style; this is a comedy with a message of tolerance beneath the veneer.

Canadian Playwright Steve Galluccio, a top favorite of the Montreal Fringe Festival, produced and wrote what became known as "Gonzo Theatre." Many of his works have a gay sensibility. However, most of his plays never reached mainstream Canadian theatre. Things changed in 2000 when Michel Tremblay, the Quebecois producer, read Galluccio's Mambo Italiano. This play was quickly translated into French and opened at the Jean Duceppe Theatre in Montreal where it became an instant success. It was so popular the playwright ushered the English version onto the stage at Montreal's Centaur Theatre in 2001. The play box broke office records and has become the biggest and most popular box office success in the theatre's long history of presenting plays in English in Quebec. It has toured Canada to great acclaim. Matthew Hayes of "The Advocate" wrote "Mambo has been heralded for its ability to bring people into the theater that normally don't go, including tens of thousands from Montreal's conservative Italian community".

Equinoxe Films of Canada decided to film the comedy in 2003 and imported American actor Paul Sorvino from the states to play Gino Barberini. Playwright Steve Galluccio, along with an assist from director Emile Gaudreault, made some changes in the film but kept the basic story intact. Samuel Goldwyn Company picked up the United States rights and it broke box office barriers for gay-orientated films. The original stage production of the English version never played the states until Ed Decker, the artistic director of the NCTC, secured the rights to present the United States premiere. The comedy is slated to play Dallas later this year and will undoubtedly be produced by other gay theatre groups. It returned to the Centaur Theatre in Montreal last year.

Angelo Barberini (Christopher Maikish), a charming and bookish Italian-Canadian TV sitcom writer who was picked on at Pius High School for being a "fag," is not happy being Italian in a family that is "la famiglia" orientated. However, Angelo stands up for his gay rights and he is diffidently out of the closet. He shares an apartment with boyfriend Nino (Tony Davis), who was also a student at Pius High and was a "jock." Tony is still in the closet and wants to stay that way since he swings on both sides of sexual preference.

Angelo's strong Italian parents, Gino and Maria (Richard Ryan and Cathy Fithian), firmly believe in "la famiglia," more specifically, that a son or daughter does not move out of the house until they are married. Their 32-year-old daughter Anna (Jessica Viola), still single, lives in the house. The parents want Angelo to move back into their conservative home but the son informs them that he is gay. Gino and Maria are "horrified" and blame each other for his homosexualality. The revelation of his sexual orientation provokes hysteria that is hilarious. The parents devise a collection of schemes intended to turn him "straight" but this things go from sunshine to thundercloud in short order.

Angelo discovers that his boyfriend is bisexual and is having sex with Pina (Camilla Busnovelski), also a former student of Pius High School. Tony wants to be more hetero then homo and moves out of their apartment. Nino's loud, controlling Sicilian mother Lina (Ana Bayat) also discovers the sexual relationship of the two guys and enters the scheme to change things back to the old "normal" ways of the family.

Mambo Italiano is not all farce; under all of the comedic acting there is a certain seriousness about tolerance for persons of different sexual persuasions. Even the conservative parents of Angelo realize this by the end of the two hour production. Angelo is forced to find a more psychologically rewarding relationship with a totally gay person.

Director George Maguire has fashioned a great cast of comic talents, especially among the actresses in this comedy. They all give hilarious, sometimes over-the-top characterizations of Italian women who came to Canada after World War II bringing with them the old world ways on how to run a family. Even their Sicilian accents are great. Cathy Fithian as Maria is perfect as a first generation Italian mother who cannot pronounce "homosexual" properly. She is the model of an Italian mother obsessed with her children. (They should never leave home unless it is to marry a nice Italian girl or boy and have children). Ana Bayat as Nino's mother is wonderful as she acts and screams like Anna Magnani in an Italian comedy. Camilla Busnovelsky is great as Pina who firmly believe she is "ugly" since she can never hold on to a man until Nino convinces her otherwise. Jessica Viola as the daughter makes a personable performance as Anna, the new-age Italian woman who wants to be independent from the old ways.

Christopher Maikish gives a captivating performance as Angelo, telling us what he thinks of the petty old world ways of the parents. This is a new generation gay activist of the future. He has a great theatrical voice, having been trained in Chicago in musical comedy. Tony Davis fleshes out the hunk bisexual and is very good in his scenes with both Christopher and Ana. Rounding out the male cast is Richard Ryan as Gino. His performance as a meek mannered husband is beautifully accomplished.

George Maguire's direction is crisp and to the point. He never lets his actors go too far into the realm of farce and gives his characters heart. James K. Faerron has fashioned an excellent dual set, with the modern apartment of Angelo and Nino on the left side and the old fashioned Italian apartment - with a picture of "The Last Supper" and other religious articles - on the right side. They exist perfectly side by side.

Mambo Italiano runs through February 20th at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave, San Francisco. For tickets call NCTC Box Office at 415-861-8972 or on line at The next NCTC production is Steve Murray's Rescue and Recovery which opens on February 5th.

Photo: Lois Tema

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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