Carmelina
The York Theatre Company, NYC
October 2006
Reviewed by John Kenrick

If you agree as I do with Julian Marsh's proclamation in 42nd Street ("musical comedy, the two most glorious words in the English language!"), then I have good news and bad news. The good news is that the best musical comedy I have seen in years is causing belly laughs galore at the York Theatre. The bad news is that this magical production is for one weekend only!

Carmelina flopped on Broadway back in 1979, the victim of uneven casting and unimaginative direction. Critics dismissed it as old-fashioned, and the show closed after just two weeks. However, a highly collectible studio cast recording has helped kept interest in the score alive -- small wonder, what with ravishing melodies by Burton Lane and exquisitely crafted lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner. This time around, Joe Stein has revised his original libretto, strengthening the comedy and -- as a consequence -- making the sentimental elements of the story far more effective. The ever-reliable Barry Harman has added some new lyrics that certainly live up to Lerner's standard. With these energizing changes to the text, a lively, straightforward staging by Michael Leeds and sure-handed musical direction by Grant Sturiale, we can finally appreciate Carmelina for what it is -- a brilliant romantic musical comedy with tons of heart. Ah, how sweet it is to savor the joys of a truly integrated musical, where the songs are actually written to fit the characters and plot!

The plot is admittedly a familiar one. You can find it in the film Buona Sera Mrs. Campbell, and it was later mangled to fit ABBA's pop songs in Mamma Mia, the regrettable but popular mother of all jukebox musicals. In brief, a woman in a small Italian town sleeps with three American GI's during World War II and becomes pregnant. Unsure which soldier is the father, she collects support from all three for seventeen years while pretending to be the widow of an imaginary war hero. When the ex-soldiers come back to town for a regimental reunion, her years of deception must come to an end, unless . . . well, I won't ruin it all for you. Suffice it to say that fun abounds, and Stein's script is a model of what the well-written musical libretto can be.

Theatre fans know that Marla Schaffel (Broadway's Jane Eyre) is a powerful singing actress, but the news is that she also has a solid flair for comedy. In the title role, she turns "Someone in April" (one of the best examples of plot exposition ever set to music) into a genuine riot. Overall, she manages to balance the character's humor with great vulnerability and a solid dose of sex appeal. As Vittorio, the local nobleman who has courted a resistant Carmelina for the better part of two decades, Ray Wills gives this show the fresh comic heart the original Broadway casting lacked. He merrily teeters somewhere between Marcello Mastroianni and Peter Sellers, with hilarious results. When these long-frustrated lovers finally agree that "It's Time for a Love Song," you can't help feeling something all to rare in musicals today -- sheer delight.

Of course, it helps to have the ever-amazing Camille Saviola on hand as Carmelina's servant Rosa, singing with gusto and delivering every line with a seemingly effortless spontaneity that reminds you why you fell in love with theatre -- or just makes you fall in love with it all over again. Nat Chandler, Joseph Kolinski and Daniel Marcus are endearing as the former GI's -- their rendition of the tender "One More Walk Around the Garden" drew well deserved cheers at the first performance. Alison Walla plays Carmelina's teenage daughter Gia with genuine charm, and handsome Eli Zoller is extremely effective as her suitor.

With only eight in the cast, the revised Carmelina is a knockout musical delight that any theatre company would do well to consider. (Hmmm . . . the composer of Finian's Rainbow, the lyricist of My Fair Lady, and the librettist of Fiddler on the Roof -- what a pedigree!) It has laughs, heartfelt emotion, characters you can't help but love -- all the things that musicals used to offer on a regular basis. Well, times have changed. Luckily, the York's Mufti concert series has once again lit a candle in dark times by successfully reincarnating a onetime failure as a joyous new jewel for audiences to discover and revel in. If there are any producers left out there who actually give a damn about musical theatre, take notice! It is high time that Carmelina had a fresh shot at a commercial run, and heaven knows that Broadway audiences need a real musical comedy more than ever. Enough with the drowsy retreads and geriatric jukeboxes -- here is the real McCoy!

This concert production runs October 20-22, 2006.

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