Romeo and…Bernadette? Why Not; What’s In a Name?

There are many reasons for taking a date to a community theater production of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Maybe you are both studying English Lit or are enrolled in acting classes. Maybe a friend is playing Mercutio or has constructed the costumes. Or maybe, as Brooklyn Guy sings in “Romeo & Bernadette,” you got a date with a college girl, and you’ve heard that “culture gets them hot.”  “Romeo & Bernadette” may or may not be an aphrodisiac (to each their own), but it is one of the most delightful pocket musicals in memory.

Sub-titled “A Musical Tale of Verona & Brooklyn,” the inventive show has re-opened off-Broadway after its acclaimed January 2020 premiere and a two-year Covid pause. Freshened up a bit and with the original cast intact, this entry in the Shakespeare-riff genre is a funny, romantic blend of high Elizabethan and low Sopranos/Godfather references. It is a compact, two-hour treat from curtain to curtain.

Romeo: Nikita Burshteyn                                   [Photo credits: Russ Rowland]

Marc Saltzman’s book is cleverly constructed (but not overly so):  The final scene of the Brooklyn Community Players “R & J” is winding down before an audience that includes Brooklyn Guy (Michael Notardonato) and Brooklyn Girl (Ari Raskin). To sooth B Girl’s emotional distress over the fate of the star-crossed lovers, B Guy constructs an alternate ending that ends up with Romeo (Nikita Burshteyn) pursuing his Juliet (Anna Kostakis) in 1960s Brooklyn. (Just go with it.)

Bernadette/Juliet: Anna Kostakis

Romeo sees Juliet’s image in mob-boss daughter Bernadette (Ms. Kostakis, of course), who is engaged to Tito (Zach Schanne), whose “I said now!” to his dawdling fiancée does not endear him to anyone in hearing range.

When Romeo is ‘adopted’ by a rival mob boss after coming to the aid of his son Dino (Notardonato, erstwhile Brooklyn Guy), the parallel between the warring mob families and the Montague/Capulet families is complete. The ensuing conflict between the feuding families and the seemingly mismatched young couples is as old as, well, The Bard, but it is so deftly written, directed, acted and sung that it seems newly invented.

The Balcony Scene

Saltzman’s adroit lyrics complement the twenty musical numbers so well that it takes a while to realize that he added those lyrics to ‘classic Italian melodies’ from a hundred or more years ago. (Not a spoiler; it’s more fun if you know upfront.) Nineteenth Century composers Rossini and Leoncavallo are among the contributors, and Steve Orich’s arrangements and Aaron Gandy’s modest, four-piece orchestra are more than up to the task. It is a rich, authentic sound.

Briskly directed and choreographed by Justin Ross Cohen, the show’s frequent, amusing nods to the 400-year time span hit their marks, as in Dino to Romeo: “…somethin’ I wish you’d change.” “What mean’st thou?” “I mean’st THAT.”

“Romeo & Bernadette” is ideally cast. Burshteyn and Kostakis, both in off-Broadway debut roles, are an engaging couple, sparring in separate jargons with a hint of the universal language they end up sharing. (Again, no spoiler; if you doubt from the start that they will couple-up, The Scottish Play is just a few blocks away.)

“When He Looked at Me That Way” From left, Ari Raskin, Michael Notardonato, Nikita Burshteyn, Anna Kosakis

Notardonato and Raskin, who reappears as Bernadette’s bestie, are equally at home with romantic sparks and comic takes. The couples’ quartet, “When He Looked at Me That Way,” set to a Bellini melody, is terrific. As the opposing mob bosses, Carlos Lopez and Michael Marotta embrace the stereotypes without crossing into caricature; both are legit singers as well, which serves the vintage score well. Musical-theater treasure Judy McLane captures perfectly the look and personality of a famiglia wife and mother. (McLane is also stunning in several of designer Joseph Shrope’s outfits, as is Kostakis in colorful 1960s styles and in bridal white.) Zach Schanne makes Bernadette’s bummer fiancé thoroughly unlikable, and Viet Vo is appropriately menacing as a lurking bodyguard-cum enforcer.

Judy McLane

In the tradition of one cast member playing multiple cameo roles (think “Little Shop” or “Sylvia”), Troy Valjean Rucker appears as an usher, a priest, a dominatrix dance instructor, a fussy wedding planner, and – wait for it – the Florist of Arden. Rucker nails them all.

Troy Valjean Rucker as The Florist of Arden with Ari Raskin, left, and Anna Kostakis

The mix of Elizabethan and Brooklynese in Saltzman’s book is great fun. To Romeo’s declaration “Thy memory forsakes thee…thou art my Juliet,” Bernadette replies “You score this way?”  “I am not Juliet,” she insists. “What I gotta’ do, paint you a fresco?”  And there are musical pleasures aplenty, from liberally distributed solos and duets up to the “Bernadette Sextet” that ends the first act, and which put me in mind of the “Tonight Quintet” of “West Side Story.” Well sung and minimally choreographed on Walt Spangler’s serviceable scaffolding set, they all advance the plot.

At the end of the Shakespeare source play, we are told that “…never was a story of more woe/Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” Of Saltzman’s update, it has been written that “…with a long-lasting smile you will not forget/This tale of Romeo and his Bernadette.” (Anon)  

Presented by Eric Krebs in association with AMAS Musical Theatre at Theater 555, 555 West 42nd Street, NYC. For Tues.-Sun. performance schedule and tickets ($79): www.romeoandbernadette.com   

 

 

 

 

 

 

NY Theater, Off Broadway

Ontario’s Stratford Festival Emerges from The Pandemic of Its Discontent

The following article appears in the May edition of the Canadian national Mensa magazine, MC2, and online and in the print editions of MediaNews Group in suburban Detroit.    

One hundred twenty-five actors in ten plays over seven months. The Stratford Festival’s usual operation, stalled during rehearsal by the pandemic shutdown in March 2020, is up and running again in 2022! Ontario’s acclaimed Shakespeare-centered repertory company is treating that rude interruption as a mere blip, re-scheduling seven of its aborted 2020 productions for this, its seventieth season.

Among the holdovers are three early-season productions with unique elements: In a bold and intriguing casting maneuver, Hamlet is being played by Amaka Umeh, the first Black woman to play the role at Stratford, and the musical “Chicago” is being re-imagined by director-choreographer Donna Feore. Also, Colm Feore (Mr. Donna) is inaugurating the Festival’s new, state-of-the-art Tom Patterson Theatre as Richard III.  “Chicago” is already up and running, while performances of “Hamlet” and “Richard III” begin in mid-May. All three will run through October. [I’ll see the three, plus a preview performance of “All’s Well That Ends Well,” in June.]

Amaka Umeh (Hamlet), Jordan Mah, left, and Graham Abbey (Claudius)

All that is not to belittle the Festival’s other mainstage and Studio productions, but those three, playing back-to-back-to-back over many two-day spans beginning in May, together amount to a mini-semester of Theatre Arts.

The short course: More than a few women have played Hamlet, most famously Sarah Bernhardt in 1899. The character does not conveniently change gender, as does, for example, Prospero-to-Prospera, or invite androgyny (Puck, Ariel). Directed by Peter Pasyk, Ms. Umeh’s mighty challenge should lure casual as well as scholarly fans of Shakespeare’s melancholy Dane.

Brimming with John Kander and Fred Ebb’s marvelous music and lyrics, “Chicago” opened in 1975, running over two years. A Broadway revival, re-creating Bob Fosse’s iconic choreography in a minimalist setting, opened in November 1996 and is still running. (Yup; twenty-five years and counting.) Now, Stratford’s acclaimed Donna Feore, whose authorized re-staging of “A Chorus Line” was widely celebrated, puts her stamp on “Chicago.” Will the deliciously lurid tale of adultery, murder, and other roaring twenties pastimes live up to song-and-dance numbers “All That Jazz” and “Razzle Dazzle?” Count on it.

Jennifer Rider-Shaw as Velma Kelly with members of the “Chicago” cast

Considering that “Richard III” (with Alec Guiness) was Stratford’s initial production in 1953, it is altogether fitting that the same play christens the newly designed Tom Patterson Theatre, a showstopper unto itself. Helmed by artistic director Antoni Cimolino this time around, the “rudely stamp’d” monarch is played by Colm Feore, whose 2009 Macbeth and Cyrano, the latter directed by Donna, constituted a dual tours de force. (In 2005, Colm Feore was Cassius opposite Denzel Washington’s Brutus on Broadway. Stratford’s most recent Richard III, in 2011, was Ms. Seana McKenna, whose riveting performance transcended gender.)

Colm Feore (Richard III), seated, Lucy Peacock (Queen Elizabeth), Andre Sills (Buckingham)

Rounding out the Shakespeare offerings, Stratford [and New Jersey Shakespeare] veteran Scott Wentworth directs “All’s Well that Ends Well,” opening, also at the Tom Patterson, in July. Known as one of The Bard’s “problem plays,” a category from which Stratford does not shirk, “All’s Well” is romantic, amusing and, dare we say, sexy. (“When you have conquered my yet maiden bed, / remain there but an hour…”)

Two world premiere plays open in June: Jordi Mand’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” geared to a young audience (think tweeners), and Sunny Drake’s “Every Little Nookie,” an intimate romp geared to a more, um, mature demographic. The Festival calendar includes several same-day double headers with “Little Women” at 2pm and “Little Nookie” at 8. (Creative scheduling, eh?)

Moliere’s “The Miser (or The School for Lies)” is due in August, as is “Death and the King’s Horseman.” The former is a rollicking farce about lovers divided becoming re-united; “Horseman,” by Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, deals with Nigeria’s efforts to uphold its culture in the face of British colonialism.

Stratford’s new Tom Patterson Theatre, a showstopper unto itself

              Completing the season are two more August openings, both riffing on Shakespeare. In Jani Lauzon and Kaitlyn Riordan’s “1939,” Indigenous students at a Northern Ontario school find parallels to themselves in “All’s Well That Ends Well,” and turn Shakespeare’s problem play into their own. And “Hamlet-911,” by Ann-Marie McDonald, concerns a young actor who has landed his dream job: playing Hamlet at the Stratford Festival. Will he succeed in the role? Or will a descent into the Underworld turn him from a ‘to be’ Hamlet into a ‘not to be’ Hamlet? You will need to see “Hamlet-911” to find out.

For other questions about the Stratford Festival season, including performance schedule, travel and lodging options,  and ticket prices (including student, senior and two-for-one discounts), go to www.stratfordfestival.ca or call 800-567-1600 for a complimentary booklet. Happily, for fans of Shakespeare and a wide variety of other Theatre treasures, “The play’s the thing” rings true once again. Happy 70th, Stratford!

Blog, Canadian Theatre

A Starry Couple Revives a Neil Simon Triptych: “Plaza Suite” on Broadway

Between 1961 and Y2K, Neil Simon was represented on Broadway by thirty plays, winning four Tony Awards (one honorary) and the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for Drama (“Lost in Yonkers”). The plays were basically comedies, many with serious undertones. As a measure of his importance in those decades, the Alvin Theatre on West 52nd Street was re-named the Neil Simon Theatre during its 1983 run of his autobiographical “Brighton Beach Memoirs.”

Simon’s plays were/are nearly all firmly tied to the time and tone of then-prevailing social mores. While a goodly number of the laugh lines still work, much of the dialogue and many of the situations are dated; some among them make light of personal interactions that we now regard with a degree of dismay. Time has not been kind to the Simon tone.

Simon’s plays are still seen on high school and community stages, but professional productions, even short of Broadway, are rare. Which makes the current Broadway revival of his 1968 “Plaza Suite” an anomaly.

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Blog, Broadway

Ten Times Ten Equals a Sumptuous Theatrical Buffet at Barrington Stage Company

Think about the last ten new plays you saw. Were most of them really well written, with cohesive plots and well-developed characters? Were they thought-provoking and/or amusing? Well, that assessment sums up my last ten, which I saw – all ten – last Sunday at Barrington Stage Company’s “10X10 New Play Festival.” Now in its eleventh year, the Festival comprises ten ten-minute plays, thus the moniker 10X10.

I wondered: How can ten plays begin/middle/end coherently in just ten minutes each? Wouldn’t even the best of them be little more than an extended skit? But no; while most of the ten are comedic in style and intent, these are all complete and stage-worthy pieces. Selected from many submissions, the plays range from the (surprisingly) sublime to the (intentionally) ridiculous.  It is a theatergoer’s buffet, and a sumptuous one at that.

Two directors each helm five entries, while six actors play several characters apiece. With bare minutes between the plays for costume changes and minimal tech setup, versatility is hardly a luxury, and these folks deliver.

Barrington Stage Company founder (1995) and long-time artistic director Julianne Boyd is retiring at the close of the 2022 season. Her final directing credit will be for “A Little Night Music” in August, but if it were for the 10X10 Festival entry “Gown,” she would be going out on a high.

Peggy Pharr Wilson, left, and Aziza Gharib in”Gown” [Production photos: David Dashiell]

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Professional, Regional

What’s Old Is New Again: Mint Theater Revives “The Daughter-in-Law”

In years past I have seen several plays performed in foreign (to me) languages. “Death of a Salesman” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” both familiar works, were perfectly clear in Yiddish, while Ionesco’s “The Bald Soprano” (so-titled from an actor’s line-flub) was no less comprehensible in French than in English.

Now along comes Mint Theater Company’s production of David Herbert (D. H.) Lawrence’s “The Daughter-in-Law,” through March 20 at New York City Center’s Stage II. And, okay, it is not really in a foreign language, but rather “an East Midlands dialect…rich in Old English and lingering Norse influence from the centuries when this part of England was under the rule of Vikings.” (Thank you, dramaturg Amy Stoller.)

The hearty dialect takes a few minutes to parse before settling into an accessible source of the play’s aural pleasures. Miss a word here or there? Doesn’t matter a whit. Delivered by a superb cast, the dialect takes on a lilt, a musicality that draws you in and carries you along with the emotionally absorbing story it explores.

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

Reality Adds a New Dimension to Off-Broadway “WIT”

Vivian Bearing, PhD, a college professor of 17th-Century poetry, specializing in the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, is undergoing chemotherapy for stage-four metastatic ovarian cancer. Fifty years of age, Vivian is a fictional character.

Erin Cronican, producer/actor and Executive Artistic Director of The Seeing Place Theater, is undergoing chemotherapy for stage-four metastatic breast cancer. Somewhat younger than Vivian, I surmise, Erin is a real-life woman.

Erin Cronican as Dr. Vivian Bearing [Photos: Russ Rowland]

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway