By Stanford Friedman
Gliding along on a wave of testosterone, the Amas Musical Theatre production of Romeo and Bernadette is an ebullient battle of the tenors thinly masquerading as a spoof of Shakespeare’s renown star-crossed lovers. The title characters share just a sole duet, but the men folk around them sing up a storm, more than compensating for the play’s overly complicated structure, underdeveloped humor and a handful of missed opportunities.
In lieu of the Montagues and Capulets, playwright/lyricist Mark Saltzman gives us the Penzas and the Del Cantos, two mob families fighting it out in 1960’s Brooklyn. Sal Penza (Carlos Lopez), short of stature but loving to his family, has a strong wife, Camille (a striking Judy McLane), and a Gucci-obsessed daughter, Bernadette (a charming if potty-mouth Anna Kostakis). She’s engaged to Tito (Zach Schanne), a hot head more interested in marrying into the family than displaying affection for his fiancée. They are all watched over by a bodyguard named Lips (Viet Vo). Just why he is called Lips goes unexplored. Meanwhile, across the borough, Don Del Canto (Michael Marotta, soothing), with no mention of a spouse, cares for his lady-killer son Dino (Michael Notardonato).
Had Saltzman quit there, with this simple two family dynamic, the musical would be on firm ground. Instead, he adds a twist by having Dino befriend a time-travelling Romeo (Nikita Burshteyn). It seems the lad had not actually died in the bard’s tragedy, he just had a 500 year nap from overdosing on that sleeping potion. Adding another layer of confusion, the whole story is framed as a kind of fairy tale being told by a working class guy trying to impress his college student date (Ari Raskin). Also in the mix is the rich baritone of Troy Valjean Rucker who plays a multitude of incidental characters, some less embarrassing than others. It’s to his credit that he pulls off the funniest line of the night while wearing a woman’s wig and clutching a shotgun.
Fortunately, the show is so hyper-charged with lively tunes, sung dynamically by a group of newcomers and stage veterans under the direction of Justin Ross Cohen, that the storyline can mostly be forgiven and forgotten. Well, O.K., it is a shame that too much of the humor is derived from Romeo trying to establish a proper Brooklyn accent rather than from dealing with his epic time leap. And that Camille, in advising Bernadette to marry wisely, is denied a proper ballad. And that those triggered by actual triggers will need to keep their eyes shut as there is more gun waving to be found here than in most war movies.
The show’s music was adapted from “classic Italian melodies,” primarily by the early 20th century composers Enrico Cannio and Francesco Paolo Tosti, and beautifully arranged and orchestrated by Steve Orich. Highlights include a break out performance by Notardonato who, like a young Vic Damone, blasts open the first act with “Boom! In Love,” a pulsating tour through his little black book. Shortly thereafter he engages in a trio with Burshteyn and Marotta where they seem to compete with each other to achieve the most heavenly harmony. “The play’s the thing,” Shakespeare once advised. But sometimes it’s the performances that matter most.
Romeo and Bernadette: A Musical Tale of Verona and Brooklyn – Book & lyrics by Mark Saltzman, music adapted from classic Italian melodies. Directed by Justin Ross Cohen.
WITH: Nikita Burshteyn (Romeo), Anna Kostakis (Bernadette), Michael Notardonato (Dino Del Canto/Brooklyn Guy) and Ari Raskin (Donna/Brooklyn Girl) ,Carlos Lopez (Sal Penza), Michael Marotta (Don Del Canto), Judy McLane (Camille Penza), Troy Valjean Rucker (Enzo Aliria), Zach Schanne (Tito), and Viet Vo (Lips ).
Walt Spangler (Scenic Design), Fabio Toblini and Joseph Shrope (Costume Design), Ken Billington (Lighting Design), One Dream Sound (Sound Design), Aaron Gandy (Music Director), Steve Orich (Musical Supervision/Arrangements/Orchestrations), Kathryn Ann Wright (Associate Choreographer), Christine Viega (Production Stage Manager). A.R.T./New York Theatres, 502 W.53rd St., 866-811-4111 https://www.amasmusical.org/romeo-bernadette. Through February 16. Running time: 2 hours including an intermission.