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A CurtainUp Review
Romeo and Bernadette: A Musical Tale of Verona and Brooklyn
The latest addition to the ever-growing list of Bard-inspired musicals is a spoof of Romeo and Juliet. It's part sci-fi, part crime thriller, and altogether a touching love story. Under the aegis of Amas Musical Theatre in association with Eric Krebs, and directed by Justin Ross Cohen, it is making its Off-Broadway debut at A.R.T./New York Theatres.
Shakespearean purists may well groan at this send-up of Romeo and Juliet that jettisons its iambic pentameters and turns Romeo into a time-traveler from the Italian Renaissance to 1960 Brooklyn. But for those who like old-fashioned entertainment, Romeo and Bernadette is a robust romp that not only pokes fun at the Bard but overlays his legendary story with modern-day Mafia families, the Penzas and Del Cantos.
Romeo and Bernadette has more comedy than tragedy in its dramatic lining. And the laughs begin with the opening scene, which relies on that old play-within-a-play conceit.
Here's the premise: A boy takes a girl to see a Brooklyn Community Players production of Romeo and Juliet, all in hopes of bedding her after the show. His plan backfires when the girl becomes more smitten with the handsome Romeo than him. The boy doesn't throw the romantic towel in, however. He turns the situation around by telling his girl—and the onstage audience-- a time-warped interpretation of the Bard's beloved story. According to his version, Romeo doesn't drink poison but a magic potion that has him fall asleep for several centuries. When he wakes from his Rip Van Winkle-like sleep, he mistakes a sassy Brooklyn girl vacationing in Verona for his Juliet. Her name is Bernadette (Anna Kostakis), the fiancée of a hot-headed Brooklyn thug, Tito Titone (Zach Schanne).
Things get more knotty when Bernadette returns to her native Brooklyn, and Romeo incredibly finds a way to get on the same flight with her. After arriving at the New York airport, however, Romeo unfortunately loses sight of Bernadette as she rides away in a cab. But rather than being blue, Romeo decides to meet the locals and learn how to speak Brooklynese. And, alas, he soon finds out from a friend that Bernadette is the daughter of Mob chief Sal Penza.
The Mafia element in Romeo and Bernadette gives the musical an edgy, urban flavor. And the characters mix with each other like so many roses and weeds in the story, moving through the streets of Brooklyn with a swagger in their step and a gleam in their eye.
Expect to see and hear all the clichés about Brooklyn in this theatrical piece. Yes, you will hear those flattened, nasalized vowels and muted "r's" of the famous accent. In fact, one of the funniest scenes in the musical is when Romeo gets an elocution lesson from Dino (Michael Notardonato) on how to talk like a born-and-bred Brooklyn boy. And after a few false starts, Romeo finally succeeds in wrapping his mouth around that signature expression, "Fuh-gedda-about-it!"
Romeo and Bernadette does get corny at times. But Cohen's crackerjack direction and brisk pacing keeps this musical humming.
Of course, a director cannot function alone. And, happily, Cohen has assembled an impeccable cast who can act and sing with gusto. While the younger members of the ensemble bring a dewy radiance to their performances, the veteran actors really know how to ham it up. To wit: Judy McLane, as Camille Penza, practically steals the show as she executes the number "Hail the Contessa" in Act 1, using a garbage can lid for a halo. Not since Elaine Stritch crawled into an oversized garbage can with stage husband Alvin Epstein in Endgame at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2008 have I laughed so hard.
Book writer Mark Saltzman has written some very funny lyrics to couple with classic Italian melodies. The most witty by far is "There's Moonlight Tonight Over Brooklyn" in Act 1, sung by the entire ensemble, which makes you fleetingly see European sophistication sprinkled over the grittiest landscapes of Brooklyn.
And let's not forget the efforts of the creative team. Walt Spangler's set, lit by Ken Billington, is a study in minimalism (Yes, it does include a balcony for Romeo to woo Bernadette). Fabio Toblini and Joseph Shrope's costumes embrace both ancient Verona and modern-day Brooklyn. And Cohen, who does double duty as choreographer, keeps the performers light on their feet, replete with some eye-catching cartwheels finessed by Anna Kostakis' Bernadette and Ari Raskin's Donna at the show's midpoint.
DirectorCohen. He's done a bang-up job of orchestrating the piece on the intimate Mezzanine stage at the A.R.T/New York Theatres. Say what you will about this farce with its trigger-happy cast, it's a lot of fun packed into 90 minutes.
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Romeo and Bernadette - A Musical Tale of Verona and Brooklyn
Book and lyrics by Mark Saltzman
Directed by Justin Ross Cohen
Cast: Nikita Burshteyn (Romeo), Anna Kostakis (Bernadette), Carlos Lopez (Sal Penza), Michael Marotta (Don Del Canto), Judy McLane (Camille Penza), Michael Notardonato (Dino Del Canto/Brooklyn Guy), Ari Raskin (Donna Dubachek/Brooklyn Girl), Troy Valjean Rucker (Usher/Bellhop/Enzo Aliria/Father Keneely/Arden/Viola/Roz), Zach Schanne (Tito Titone), and Viet Vo (Lips).
Sets: Walt Spangler
Costumes: Fabio Toblini and Joseph Shrope
Lighting: Ken Billington
Choreography: Justin Ross Cohen
Sound: One Dream Sound
Music direction: Aaron Gandy
Orchestrations: Steve Orich
Stage Manager: Christine Viega
Mezzanine stage at the A.R.T./New York Theatres, 502 W. 53rd Street. Tickets: $49-$69. Phone (866) 811-4111or online at www.amasmusical.org
From 01/14/20; opening 01/23/20; closing 02/16/19.
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