Romeo and Bernadette

Paper Mill: The State Theater of NJ

Millburn, NJ - February 2003

Review by John Kenrick

There's a nifty bit of hilarity cutting loose in the New Jersey countryside, involving Sopranos-style mobsters, Shakespearean romance, and some dazzling melodies thrown in for the heck of it. If you're looking for some fresh musical comedy fun, look no further than Paper Mill's delightful production of Romeo and Bernadette, the most unlikely good time I've had in many a night at the theatre.

So if this show is so much fun, why isn't it across the Hudson? Frankly, it still needs a bit of work. The opening is a bit murky, and the titular lovers don't have a much needed love duet – but these things could easily be fixed. Once you get past the somewhat confusing opening scene and catch on to what is happening, Romeo and Bernadette offers up two fast-paced hours of good-natured tom foolery. And if you think solid belly laughs are anything less than a lifesaving tonic in these troubled times, think again! With musical comedies back in vogue on Broadway, Romeo and Bernadette is too good a show to ignore.

Mark Saltzman (best known for co-writing the revue A My Name is Alice) has crafted this new musical out of an admittedly far-fetched idea. The action begins in Brooklyn on a night in 1960, when a young man finds his date in tears after seeing an experimental production of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Realizing that her weeping will drown his hopes for a romantic evening, he tells her that the story actually has a happy ending, then launches into a wildly inventive riff on the original. It seems Romeo didn't die after all – he was drugged, and somehow wakes up in 1960. Still seeking his long-dead Juliet (and still spouting Shakespearean blank verse – in Italy?), he finds her look alike, the curvaceous Bernadette. When she and her mafia don father return to Brooklyn, Romeo follows, and his ongoing pursuit of Bernadette sparks a war between mafia families.

Saltzman has also crafted the highly entertaining score, setting new lyrics to classic Italian art songs and Neapolitan love ballads. Being of Italian decent (on my mother's side), I grew up listening to my grandmother croon these tunes as she simmered her marinara sauce, so I was a but leery of any attempt to turn these lifelong favorites into showtunes. As it turns out, such worries were groundless. Saltzman's often witty lyrics are a pleasure, and he sensibly alters some tempos while leaving others in their original form. A case in point is "Mattinata," a Leoncavallo classic that has earned the Three Tenors many an ovation over the years. Here it becomes "Moonlight Tonight Over Brooklyn," with the entire ensemble singing together during an Italian church festival. I found myself smiling that goofy smile I get whenever I find myself falling in love with a new show. An intelligent, romantic number making inventive use of a grand melody to turn an everyday setting into something magical – how could I resist?

This material could easily have floundered in the wrong hands, but director Mark Waldrop (When Pigs Fly) is one of the few people I know of who is truly qualified to keep zaniness and romance in proper balance. Guns and kisses fly through the air with equal ease, and dialogue flows effortlessly into song. Waldrop also gets credit for some excellent casting decisions, both in leading roles and key ensemble parts.

As the time-traveling Romeo, Adam Monley (fresh from Broadway's Mamma Mia!) is as ardent and handsome as anyone legendary lover should be, charming the heck out of the audience from his first iambic rhyme to his last "fuggedaboudit." Natalie Hill drips 60's Flatbush chic as Bernadette, using a foul-mouthed tough-girl exterior to hide a heart that yearns for love. Andy Karl is a real audience pleaser, playing the gangster's son who befriends Romeo – his rapid-fire musical listing of past girlfriends is a surprise showstopper. Rosie DeCandia played Bernadette's sidekick Donna with comic flair, and David Brummel and Charles Pistone were perfectly cast as the warring mafia dons. Emily Zacharis won laughs as a mobster wife, and silver throated Vince Trani was a riot as the most cuddly body guard the mafia ever called its own. Special kudos go to John Paul Almon who handles seven roles with scene-stealing brio – including an Irish priest, a dictatorial dance teacher, and the kind of gravel-voiced, chain-smoking dress shop owner my mother knew all too many of in my Queens-Brooklyn childhood.

The production qualities are solid in every department. Michael Anania's airy unit set keeps the action flowing smoothly, and Miguel Angel Huidor's colorful costumes add just the right period touches – including the most over the top wedding gown I've seen outside of Bensonhurst. F. Mitchell Dana's lighting is a delight, as are Louis Forestieri's arrangements, handled adroitly by Bruce W. Coyle's intimate ensemble.

The best new musical of the new year is up and running, and in New Jersey. If this is what we can expect to see when Paper Mill – the shrine of revivals – decides to showcase a new show, then I hope to heaven they do a lot more in the future. Romeo and Bernadette is the most fun thing to come along since Hairspray, and miles ahead of the dancing vampires, amour-less Frenchmen and clumsily revised revivals Broadway has been subjected to over the past year. With a cast of ten, R&B could easily migrate across the harbor. Just in case it doesn't, give yourself a midwinter treat and pop over to Millburn – it's less than half an hour by train from midtown Manhattan, so no excuses New Yorkers!

This production closed March 23, 2003.

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