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|A CurtainUp Review
Romeo and Bernadette
By Dorrie Weiss
Boy is trying to bed girl. He has softened her up with dinner and the theater, but in a monumental miscalculation has taken her to see Romeo and Juliet. The girl leaves the theater weeping about the senseless loss of the handsome Romeo. (She doesn't care a fig about Juliet.) Trying to beguile her and get to the business of bedding her, he tells her that Romeo is not dead. He will tell her the real story about what happened. In what must be the longest and funniest seduction in history, he resuscitates both Romeo and his girl's desire. When last seen, they are off to bed, and he is offering to tell her the real story of what happened to Hamlet.
The real story, in this version, is that Romeo did not drink poison, but a sleeping potion that turned out to be truly long-acting. It preserved him more efficiently than cryogenics could ever have done. He wakes about three hundred years later in Verona, unaware of the fact that he has been sleeping, and sees his Juliet, whose name is Bernadette. Unfortunately, she is the daughter of a Brooklyn mobster and is on her way home to marry the operator of her father's choice. Romeo follows her to Avenue Z, using for his plane fare some of the gold coins in his pocket. Don't ask how he gets through customs – in this play, you not only suspend disbelief: you hang it up by the thumbs. With his Renaissance grace and his bulging codpiece, Romeo is an instant hit with the ladies. His new friend teaches him how to speak Brooklynese. You don't say, I think not, Sire. Using two forceful words, you say "Fergedd aboudit."
In this musical, with book and lyrics by Mark Saltzman, camp meets opera. The voices in the production are great, especially the men's voices, and the actors move easily from farce to song. It is a hilarious Neverland where Charles Ludlum salutes Puccini, and the cast belts out old Neopolitan songs as though they were performing in La Scala.
The ten actors play their roles broadly. The burly Mr. Almon, slipping in and out of seven parts, is cast as a flamboyant homosexual who crosses gender barriers with ease, playing simpering men and overbearing women. Andrew Varela is cast as the Tito, the villain you would love to hate if it weren't that he sang so beautifully. Adam Monley sings Romeo with warmth and charm, and Andy Karl, his friend, pulls the audience into his confidence with a knowing wink.
Saltzman lampoons convention with a force that is far too strong for its silly targets. It is like watching a man with a baseball bat trying to swat a fly. In the subsequent breakage, laughter becomes the only possible response. In his take on the language of clothing, for example, he uses Polonius's dictum that "the apparel oft proclaims the man" and puts Bernadette, getting ready to marry the wrong man, in a wedding gown festooned with fanny-bows . It is so tight that she waddles and shimmies, hardly able to walk. The couturier, the ubiquitous Mr. Almon, is wearing a Chanel suit with spike heels so high that he can barely toddle up the stairs. In another scene, Tito has been ordered to learn to dance in preparation for the wedding. Mr. Almon is a big-breasted martinet who claims she once studied with Agnes de Mille. Tito refuses to learn, and pulls a gun on the dance teacher – who promptly rebuts his argument with Miss de Mille's rifle.
The play has been meticulously staged and directed. The set is dominated by a pair of overhanging balconies. (Where would Romeo be without a balcony?) Farce depends upon timing, and the timing here is impeccable.
Romeo and Bernadette pulls the audience into the action and the complicity is disarming. A request that the audience help urge a young woman from her room is met with a roar of "Come down! Come down!" At one point, during a gun duel, the mobster's gun slips off the stage, and someone in the front row hands the gun back up to the stage. Then the play continues. ( I'm told that at one performance during the Miami run, the patron refused to return the gun, either from acquisitiveness or pacifism. It took some urging to get it back.)
Saltzman observes the conventions of Shakespeare's comedies. The hero is adrift in an alien land and forges a loyal relationship with a man whose life he saves. He wins the woman he loves despite impossible odds. There is a case of misdirected love. In the end, the couples are sorted out and everything ends with the Shakespearian theme of reconciliation, where moral judgements are suspended in favor of a peaceful resolution. Brooklyn becomes Illyria. But enough of literary comparisons. Do you think this is a play to be analyzed rather than laughed at? Fergedd aboudit!
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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