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Theatre in Review: Carmelina (Musicals in Mufti/York Theatre Company)

Anne L. Nation, Andréa Burns. Photo: Ben Strothmann.

This is the third time that the York has presented a Mufti version of Carmelina, a show that clearly obsesses James Morgan, the artistic director -- and it is easy to see why. This year, the Mufti season of forgotten musicals given concert stagings is focused on Alan Jay Lerner, reason enough to bring back Carmelina -- admittedly, one of his unhappier Broadway experiences -- but, really, no justification is needed for an entertainment as charming and tuneful as this.

When Carmelina opened -- and closed, two weeks later, in 1979 -- it was dismissed as a hopelessly old-fashioned trifle set in a musical-comedy version of Italy. "The inhabitants include a bread-seller, a fruit-seller, a mustached mayor, and a shovel-hatted priest; and they all bubble," complained Richard Eder in the New York Times. Never mind: The frothy amusement at the York is a revision by Joseph Stein, co-author (with Lerner) of the book; Burton Lane, the composer; and lyricist Barry Harman -- who, we are told, was a protégé of Lerner's. Together, they have swept away whatever was ponderous or creaky about the original, fashioning an attractively trim entertainment that should be catnip for theatre companies looking for a classic-style Broadway musical with modest staging requirements.

The title character of Carmelina is a rather ostentatiously respectable widow living in an Italian village in 1961. (More often than not, she can be found in church, bowed in prayer, edifying her fellow citizens with her displays of piety.) Carmelina is known as the widow of Eddie Campbell, American war hero and father of little Gia, currently ensconced in a Swiss finishing school. All would be well but for the fact that Vittorio, the mayor, burns for Carmelina -- as he has for the last seventeen years. Truth to tell, she returns his feelings, but is paralyzed by the idea of getting off her pedestal.

That pedestal gets a good swift kick when it is announced that Eddie Campbell's regiment is coming to town for a reunion, and Carmelina's secret comes tumbling out: Eddie is an invention, designed to hide the fact that, during one tumultuous month in 1944, Carmelina had back-to-back-to-back romances with a trio of Gis. (The US Army had driven out the Nazis, and what could a girl be but grateful?) One of them is Gia's father, but which one? In the spirit of equality, Carmelina has been accepting monthly checks from all three - none of whom knows anything about the others - ever since.

Carmelina's first -- and thoroughly sensible -- instinct is to get out of town for the duration, but her cooked-up story about rushing to the side of an ailing Gia collapses when the girl shows up, eager to meet her "father's" old friends. Carmelina is left to brazen it out, a task that becomes increasingly difficult as the evasions and trumped-up stories accumulate -- and as Vittorio, unaware of her deception, continues to press his case. (If any of this seems familiar, it is taken from the 1968 film Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell, starring Gina Lollabrigida as the duplicitous heroine.)

The plot is a bite of biscotto, sweet enough to keep one amused and sufficiently savory to let one care about what happens to Carmelina, Vittorio, Gia, and their thoroughly confused visitors. The dessert wine paired with it is a score that consistently beguiles while pushing the story forward with the lightest of touches. One of them, "Someone in April," is a model of its kind. As Walter Kerr pointed out in 1979, lest audiences dismiss Carmelina as something of a tramp, she is allowed to plead her case, describing how, in tumultuous times, a sheltered seventeen-year-old, separated from her parents, might fall so quickly for three different handsome, tender soldiers. As sung to her aghast maid, Rosa, the number initially strikes an attractively infatuated tone that becomes uproarious with each new chorus. It sets the scene perfectly for a show in which moonstruck romance comfortably occupies the same stage with wisecracking farce, each dependably supporting the other.

The score is loaded with other gems. The opener, "It's Time for a Love Song," is a lovely, lazily soaring ballad that preps the audience for all that follows. The remarkably pensive "Love Me Tomorrow," Carmelina's plea to Vittorio not to trifle with her, strikes a deeper note of emotional involvement that helps to anchor the wilder goings-on. The gorgeous "One More Walk Around the Garden" features Carmelina's now middle-aged lovers, seized with nostalgia, dreaming of another taste of yesterday's amours. I have a slight quibble with one of Harman's inventions: "You're a Woman," sung by Vittorio to Carmelina, works better when the lady claims it for herself (as she did originally) in the eleven o'clock slot, but Lane's insistent, nervously assertive melody is catchy, and Harman's lyric captures the style of Lerner's original, consisting of brief, neatly rhymed phrases, like a series of lyrical telegrams. A new number, "Sorry as I Am," with lyrics by Harman set to a melody by Lane, allows Carmelina to unapologetically confront her life choices; it goes a long way toward deepening the audience's interest in her self-inflicted dilemma.

As Carmelina, Andréa Burns doesn't have the dry humor and throaty vocals of Georgia Brown, who created the role, but she has a crisp comic style that effectively conveys the character's mounting panic at being caught in a sizzling scandal; as anyone who has seen her in In the Heights or On Your Feet! will expect, her vocals are lovely. Joey Sorge niftily spoofs Vittorio's outsized passions -- especially in a fantasy of revenge titled "I Will Kill Her" -- without sacrificing the character's appeal. MaryJoanna Grisso is all innocence as Gia, especially in "Smiling at Me," in which she recalls making a hit with the visiting veterans. Anne L. Nathan slays all night long as Rosa, the maid, ready to switch out one cover story for another at a moment's notice. As Carmelina's trio of lovers -- aka the "stockholders" in "Carmelina, Inc." after the truth is revealed -- Evan Harrington, Timothy John Smith, and Jim Stanek mine vocal gold out of "One More Walk Around the Garden"; they also do well when, their initial outrage dissipating, they mull over the idea of fatherhood in "The Image of Me." Antonio Cipriano is solid as a local fisherman who wants to elope with Gia.

Aside from Steve O'Shea's solid lighting, design credits are nonexistent. The show had only thirty-six hours of rehearsals; one imagines that, had he had more time, the director, Michael Leeds, would have cleaned up a bit of business featuring all of the principals stalking through Carmelina's house late at night; he might also have given the end of the first act a stronger button than it currently has. (The actors are all on book.) But the laughs are plentiful ("All those beautiful letters she used to write," says one of the former Gis; "In triplicate," adds another), the songs fall beautifully on the ear, and a show that once seemed destined for the flop shelf now looks like a highly playable proposition. Carmelina runs through next weekend; if you need a little sunshine in February, it is just the thing. -- David Barbour

(4 February 2019)

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