by Ron Fassler
In the spring of 1979, Carmelina, a new musical by the formidable talents of Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane, opened on Broadway. It came and went pretty quickly, in spite of a few respectable notices. Of course, then as now, producers need better than “respectable” to sell tickets, and further hindrance came after many critics damned the show with faint praise by calling it “an old-fashioned musical.” Lost on no one was that only a month earlier, a musical as new-fashioned as Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd had opened, breaking new ground for the American musical. Now, forty years later, Carmelina is back, entirely due to the folks at the York Theatre Company via their “Musicals in Mufti” series; and not for the first time either. This is their third time presenting Carmelina since 1996. Sunday afternoon it was my pleasure to see this charming show (for my first time) in a well-staged, sweetly performed and beautifully sung production.
For the uninitiated who have never heard of the word “mufti,” don’t feel lost. It was only when the York Theatre began to produce these reduced-sized versions—done in simply staged, book in-hand concerts—twenty-five years ago, that I first came upon the phrase and had to look it up. Mufti means “in street clothes, without the trappings of a full production,” which is exactly how the York has been bringing us dozens of musicals (on tight budgets) over the last quarter of a century.
Carmelina is based on a 1968 film comedy titled Buena Serra, Mrs. Campbell (though it doesn’t credit it), which starred Gina Lollobridgida as an Italian woman who, during World War II, gave birth to a child in her small town without knowing who the father was. Certain it was one of three soldiers during that one month in April, she told each of them that the child was theirs, with all three supporting a daughter they’d never met in the seventeen intervening years. That is, until the Americans show up for a reunion, and . . . well, if you’ve seen Mamma Mia, you know exactly how this all plays out (which also doesn’t acknowledge the Mrs. Campbell film as its source). Anyway, whether any of that constitutes plagiarism is fodder for a piece of investigative journalism, not this review.
Although only familiar with one song from Carmelina, the haunting “One More Walk Around the Garden,” I was happily serenaded this past Sunday afternoon by delightful tune after delightful tune. From the moment a charming guitarist strolled down the aisle of the theater singing “It’s time for a love song,” I was hooked. Burton Lane was one of the great melodists that ever wrote for the theatre (or film), and his score for Carmelina is no exception. And in Alan Jay Lerner, one could always count on smiling at many of his lyrics, laughing out loud at a few more, and silently nodding in agreement to an exquisitely expressed romantic sentiment. You get all that here under the fine direction of Michael Leeds, in what is always for the “mufti” series a swiftly-put together show with limited rehearsal time. Along with musical direction by David Hancock Turner, playing the piano himself and accompanied by bass player Joseph Wallace, the small, lovely sound makes for some very pretty music.
As for the players, Andrea Burns, one of Broadway’s most talented leading ladies, is Carmelina. Everything, from her fine Italian accent to her strong and powerful mezzo-soprano, is excellent. She is given able support by Joey Sorge as her eventual love interest, and by Anne L. Nathan as Rosa, Carmelina’s faithful companion. Ms. Nathan truly knows where the funny is. Rounding out the cast are Mary Joanna Grisso, Evan Harrington, Timothy John Smith, Jim Stanek and Antonio Cipriano, all well-suited to their various roles.
If you’ve never experienced a “mufti,” then you can do no better than to luxuriate in Burton Lane’s outstanding melodies in Carmelina, sung by a talented eight-person cast.
Finally, it should be noted that this series is devoted to Alan Jay Lerner for its full season, with upcoming performances of the second Lerner & Loewe musical, The Day Before Spring (February 7-17) and Lolita, My Love, Lerner’s 1971 adaptation of Nabokov’s infamous novel, with music by John Barry. Having never made it to Broadway, with Lolita’s pre-mature closing in Boston, a trip to the York to see it (February 23-March 3) might well be worth a visit . . . for curiosity, if nothing else.
Carmelina. Through February 6 at The York Theatre Company (in St. Peter’s Church, 619 Lexington Avenue, entrance on East 54th Street). www.yorktheatre.org
Photos: Genevieve Rafter Keddy