by Adam Cohen
Riffs on Shakespeare have been around since their world premieres. And most like West Side Story or Scotland, PA succeed on their wit, casting, and opening the story for both actor and audience to find something original. This is absolutely and pleasantly the case of the new musical Romeo & Bernadette: A Musical Tale of Verona and Brooklyn, which brings the star-crossed lovers to Brooklyn in the 1960s.
The comic love story, written by Mark Saltzman, a native of Yonkers, New York, who earned seven Emmy awards as a script writer and songwriter for Sesame Street.
Here Romeo didn’t die at the climax of Romeo and Juliette but slept straight through to 1960 thanks to a strong sleeping potion. Following his awakening, Romeo finds himself in Brooklyn surrounded by sassy dames, warring mobsters, urbane lyrics and iconic Italian melodies. This fable is concocted by a guy on a date (Michael Notardonato) to a community theater production of Romeo & Juliet who doesn’t want his evening with his gal (Ari Raskin) to end.
Saltzman’s zippy script balances one-liners with a boisterous romantic heart. The show is effortlessly charming thanks to a game, intelligent cast and strong direction by Justin Ross Cohen.
Romeo bursting with puckish Elizabethan charm (Nikita Burshteyn) immediately sets out to find the reincarnated spirit of his beloved Juliet. He finds it in a luscious Brooklyn tomato named Bernadette (Anna Kostakis). She’s on vacation in Verona with her mobster father Don Penza (Carlos Lopez) and mother Camille, (Judy McLane). Bernadette – a shopaholic – is engaged to the thick-headed, violent and sex-prone Tito (Zach Schanne) with a penchant for being the Don. Romeo falls in the rival Del Canto family – Don (Michael Marotta) and Dino (Notardonato), setting Shakespeare’s familiar plot in motion.
The Mafia element in Romeo and Bernadette gives the musical an edgy, urban flavor. Cohen’s direction and the supremely talented cast provides an urbane, frothy, entertaining wit and edge.
Expect all the clichés about Brooklyn. But they are nicely turned in a fabulous scene allowing Romeo to learn to contemporize his lingo.
The impeccable cast are delightful and act and sing with gusto. Kudos to casting director Carol Hanzel and Cohen for finding an earnest, intelligent, romantic in Burshteyn’s Romeo and an effortlessly charming Notardonato. Schanne brings an effective menace to Tito. Kostakis sings beautifully and finds a strong independence and romance to Bernadette. Judy McLane, aided immeasurably by Saltzman’s script is fabulous as Camille Penza, singing vibrantly and providing practical, pragmatic romantic advice to her on-stage daughter. Troy Valjean Rucker plays multiple roles – both male and female – with excellent comedic effect and powerful vocals.
This is a genuinely funny, entertaining, effervescent, zippy production. Walt Spanger’s cotton candy lighting is pretty. Fabio Toblini and Joseph Shrope’s costumes successfully marry the 60s and Elizabethan era Verona. Cohen, who does double duty as choreographer, has his moments – from patty cake to cartwheels finessed by Kostakis.
For a fun night out, Romeo and Bernadette delivers comic panache.
Photos: Russ Rowland
Tickets and more information at https://www.amasmusical.org
Mezzanine Theater at A.R.T./New York Theatres 502 West 53 Street, NYC