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Theatre in Review: Romeo and Bernadette (Amas Musical Theatre/ART New York Theatres)

Nikita Burshteyn, Michael Notardonato. Photo: Russ Rowland.

Romeo and Bernadette is the rarest of birds -- a tuneful, good-for-laughs musical that, despite a premise that doesn't bear scrutiny, offers a showcase for some pretty sensational young people. Musical theatre fans, depressed by the charm deficit in most of New York's current attractions, may want to give this one a flyer; the production's relaxed, genial mood and abundant onstage talent combine to crowd-pleasing effect.

Let's get the plot out of the way: The idea is that Romeo -- yes, that Romeo, last seen expiring in an Italian tomb with his girlfriend -- wakes up in Verona, circa 1960. He promptly falls hard for Bernadette, a Mafia princess, visiting, with her family, from Brooklyn -- she is, apparently, a dead ringer for the expired Juliet -- and he frantically follows her back home in hopes of pressing his case. Back in the land of goombahs and made men, Romeo is adopted by Don Del Canto, a mob boss. This is a problem, however, as Bernadette is the daughter of Sal Penza, Del Canto's archenemy. A turf war looms -- or, as Dino, son of Don Del Canto, asks Romeo, "What, you been through this kind of thing before?"

The concept is right out of pure prewar Broadway -- think of Bert Lahr in DuBarry Was a Lady as a nightclub restroom attendant who gets conked in the head and dreams that he is Louis XIV -- but Mark Saltzman's book is rather careless about the details of Romeo's resurrection, how he gets to America, and why he is admitted into the country without a passport. Even the kookiest fantasy needs ground rules if it is going to work; to inoculate himself against complaints, Saltzman frames the action as a tale told by Brooklyn Guy, an on-the-make modern Romeo trying to impress his English-major girlfriend with his cultural bona fides. ("I'll tell you what really happened to Hamlet!" he adds.) The gamble is that filtering the story through the narrator's imagination allows for an anything-goes approach.

Well, maybe. Certainly, the comedy of clashing sensibilities makes for a surprising amount of fun. "Wow, you always take it so hard when a girl blows you off?" Bernadette asks. "Thy words do perplex," replies Romeo, who, despite his Veronese provenance, speaks English in iambic pentameter. (At one point, he threatens to leap to his death out love for her, after which she refers to him as "the jerk on the bridge who talked like a sympathy card.") Struggling to communicate with Bernadette on her level, he dismisses any mention of her fiancé -- a sleazy aspiring goodfella -- announcing, "I say unto thee: Fuhgedabboudit."

That such blatant vaudeville proves so winning is a testament to the direction of Justin Ross Cohen, which establishes a warmly welcoming mood. Saltzman -- taking a leaf from Robert Wright and George Forrest -- has rounded up a batch of Italian arias, turn-of-the-last-century pop tunes, and street songs and transformed them via his clever lyrics and Steve Orich's inventive arrangements into a bouncily melodic score. At a local festival, a quartet of romantics sing, "The sparrows are singin' Sinatra/A song where a guy gets his gal," while another character adds, "I feel like I'm sailing through Venice/But that's the Gowanus Canal." Dino, who becomes Romeo's sidekick, gets "Boom! In Love," in which a melody by the Neapolitan composer Enrico Cannio gets the fizz of a classic Sixties showtune. ("I got a weakness for the ladies/Okay, a sentimental streak/I fall in love and it's forever/That happens once or twice a week.") Other vintage melodies -- including some by Rossini and Bellini -- are gussied up into heartfelt ballads, jazzy waltzes, and Brill Building-style boppers.

Cohen's cast includes a couple of new faces who certainly look like they're going places. As Romeo Nikita Burshteyn, dressed in a doublet and sneakers, combines heart-struck innocence with a RADA-graduate acting style, singing gorgeously to boot -- all of which work to make him an adorable fish out of water. Faced with the silliest bits of business, he elevates them into good fun. Michael Notardonato, assuming a forty-five-degree-angle stance, rolling his hooded eyes, and cracking wise, can't help but make Dino the center of attention. (In a funny way, the young men's partnership gives the show much of its kick, more so than the romance of the title.) Judy McLane, looking like she just stepped out of The Irishman, offers an amusing sendup of a lacquered mob matron obsessed with her aristocratic roots. Ari Raskin is fun as Dino's leather-lunged love interest, capable of shouting down the entire neighborhood when it leans in to kibitz on her love life. Providing solid support everywhere you look is Troy Valjean Rucker as various men and women -- including a gravel-voiced "Coco Chanel of Bensonhurst," a cha-cha teacher who knows her way around a sawed-off shotgun, and the proprietor of a flower shop known as the Florist of Arden.

As Bernadette, Anna Kostakis can't quite keep up, not because she doesn't have the skills but because nobody seems to have found the right comic slant for her character. She has her moments, but the character -- who is alternately abrasive, selfish, and a bit of a doormat -- wants clarification; the show dallies in establishing her attraction to Romeo, which undercuts her likability. (I hope to see her again, and soon, however.) The book runs aground near the end, when it tries to get a little bit serious about the downside of gangster life, especially in a barely sketched-in climax involving an attempted whack job at a wedding. The lines between kidding around, satire that means it, and romance with a touch of real feeling have yet to be adequately drawn in Romeo and Bernadette.

Assisting the show's galloping pace is Walt Spangler's simple scenic design, which relies on moving pieces of scaffolding -- an especially useful when the inevitable balcony scene rolls around -- and Ken Billington's colorful, seamlessly cued lighting. The costumes, by Fabio Toblini and Joseph Shrope, constitute a consistently droll parade of sheath dresses, Bermuda shorts, Pat Nixon cloth coats, and other period fashions. One Dream Sound provides understated, yet entire intelligible, reinforcement for the score, played offstage by a quartet on keyboards, woodwinds, and drums.

Whatever doesn't work in Romeo and Bernadette tends to get buoyed up by its high spirits. Indeed, the show is a smart bit of counterprogramming: So many recent musicals are heavy with significance, while lighter entertainments, like Emojiland, get so tangled up in their concepts that they forget to amuse. Romeo and Bernadette certainly has its rickety moments, but it aims to give audiences a good time, and it does; at the very least, it knows what it's about. -- David Barbour

(27 January 2020)

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