By Sandi Durell . . .
As with so many shows caught in the pandemic so was Romeo & Bernadette. We happily welcome back this new spin on Shakespeare . . . A Musical Tale of Verona and Brooklyn where the real Romeo (dating back to the 16th century) and the modern Juliet, now Bernadette, come together. Seems Romeo was caught in a time warp that begins for us in 1960 at the Brooklyn Community Players in their version of Romeo & Juliet. With book and lyrics comically and cleverly written by Mark Saltzman, and music adapted from Italian melodies, you’ll find yourself laughing out loud at the absurdities of this romantic and charming tale of two Italian Mafia mob families akin to the Capulets and Montagues as Romeo seeks out his eternal love potion in a new world.
But the similarities to Shakespeare’s classic don’t end there. To the keen observer, there are subtle undertones in Romeo & Bernadette that seem a deliberate nod to iconic Shakespearean characters and archetypes, other than the obvious. Juliet/Bernadette’s best friend and minder has overtones of The Nurse. There is a narrator, an outlaw, a hero and a second act opening number that announces what will happen next.
The cast of characters are remnants of two fighting Mafia caricature families – The Penza and Del Canto clans. There’s Bernadette Penza (Anna Kostakis), a spoiled, sexy, potty-big mouth about to be married to Tito Titone (Zach Schanne), a domineering stud – street thug type hoping to worm his way into the family. The Penzas – including sweet, funny and loveable mob boss Papa Sal (Carlos Lopez) and his wife, the high falutin Camille, with big ambitions (Judy McLane). Lest we forget the family bodyguard, the dry humorous Lips (Viet Vo) – wherever they goeth, he goeth..
When the Penzas go off on a trip to Verona (with Lips), the all-about-me Bernadette, who spends her time shopping, primping and complaining, is accosted by the lost Romeo as they serendipitously meet on a bridge and Romeo says “Tis I… surely must tho remember st!” to which Bernadette responds “You talk like the Bible. Where’d y’ learn English, in a hotel room?” followed by “One Tender Word” a duet.
Camille is thrilled finding her familia roots, which she later sings about (“The Swan Contessa”) as she attempts to give her family a little culture visiting the Verona Opera House to hear star Enzo Aliria (Pavarotti-type) played by the multi-talented, multi-character Troy Valjean Rucker exquisitely singing Marechiare (music by Tomasso Giordani).
Let’s not miss the fact that this musical spoof has some very funny dialogue supported by mostly humorous driven song lyrics delivered by this uber talented cast.
Bernadette’s close friend Donna Dubachek plays the bride’s maid and tough-talking college girl giving a star quality turn by hot stuff Ari Raskin, as she cleverly avoids the over-amorous Dino Del Canto (Michael Notardonato) who is smitten with and is after her. Dino is a smooth talking, conceited but charming young and sexy mob upstart and probably belongs in Jersey Boys with that well-suited pop sounding voice. When Romeo finds himself alone on the streets of New York (where he’s finally tracked down his Juliet), Dino befriends him and takes him home to meet his Mafia dad Don Del Canto (glorious-voiced Michael Marotta), an upper class elegant old country Italian, who, after hearing his tale, gives Romeo shelter – “A World Away” (Don, Romeo, Dino) as Dino helps dress him in more modern attire.
There are lots of antics that go on including Dino attempting to bring Romeo’s speech into more current times – “Dino Diction” (music by Enrico Cannio) as the cast moves quickly and easily about on the minimal jungle gym style set with fall away drapes and moveable scenery smartly designed by Walt Spangler.
Our hero, Romeo, played superbly by the impeccably talented Nikita Burshteyn, suited in 16th Century garb of tights, tunic, cod piece, boots and dagger, with a voice of angels -“Oh, for A Song” (music by G.B. De Curtis) – among others. He tracks his Juliet from Verona to Brooklyn where he fights what appears to be a losing battle against the mob in wooing his beloved. But as the saying goes ….love conquers all.
Another standout is Troy Valjean Rucker who takes on the role of the flamboyant and fabulous florist Arden; the opera singer, Father Keneely the priest; Viola Violovitch a dominatrix dance instructor who attempts to teach Tito the cha-cha until he pulls a gun on her, and also Roz, the wedding dressmaker. The last two are hysterical to watch.
The costumes by Joseph Shrope fit the characters of the 60s look to a T, with some fabulous colorful, shimmering additions where needed, aided by Daniel Lynn Evans’ hair designs;
Lighting design is by Kim Billington with sound by Andrew Keister.
It all comes together under the skillful guiding hand of director and choreographer Justin Ross Cohen who does wonders on that stage especially with dance moves.
You may not remember the songs or walk out humming a particular tune, but the cast makes it all work as each has a moment to shine. Best of all, this show has no agenda, it’s pure entertainment and receives an “A+” from us.
Romeo & Bernadette at Theater 555, 555 West 42nd Street, NYC), run time approximately 2 hours w/intermission, tickets: www.romeoandbernadette.com
Photos: Russ Rowland