Composer Burton Lane had worked with Lerner on the successful 1951 MGM film Royal Wedding and the aborted 1954 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn intended for Danny Kaye and Gene Kelly. They had last collaborated on the 1965 Broadway musical, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. Based on the film Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell, the subtle, old-fashioned Carmelina opened on April 8, 1979 in the era of loud rock musicals and closed after 17 performances.
Carmelina is the only Lerner musical on which he had a co-librettist in Joseph Stein, a long-time friend and the author of Fiddler on the Roof. Lerner declined to work on a proposed London version and gave permission for lyricist Barry Harmon to work with Stein and Lane on the project. The resulting 14 character version was cancelled but appeared at the York Muftis in 1996. Stein, Harmon and director Michael Leeds worked on the show yet again and came up with an eight character version which was seen at the York Muftis in 2006. The 2019 York Mufti version contains some minor changes by Harmon and Leeds, in their third collaboration on the show.
Written by Stein and Lerner, Carmelina is a boulevard farce with a lush, melodic score by Lane. It remains as delightful as it was in 1979. Now couched as a flashback in the revised concept by Harmon and Leeds, it is set in 1961 in San Forino, a small town in southern Italy, and narrated by restauranteur Eduardo. Signora Campbell, the most respected woman in town, has brought up her daughter Gia as a single parent since her husband the American Lieutenant Eddie Campbell died heroically in battle in 1944. She continually refuses to marry the town’s most eligible bachelor, Vittorio Dela Marta who is madly in love with her, as she wished to stay faithful to her husband’s memory. When news reaches San Forino that the American battalion is returning for a reunion, she is the only one who is not overjoyed as Carmelina has a secret.
As it happens, three American soldiers were assigned to live in Carmelina’s house during the war after the town was liberated from the Germans, one after another. When all three had left, she discovered that she was pregnant. She went away to Naples, and came back with baby Gia, taking the name of Signora Campbell, the widow of the war hero Lt. Eddie Campbell. She also wrote to the three soldiers, Walter Braddock, Carleton Smith and Steve Karzinski, telling each that he was the father of her child and has been receiving checks from all three of them ever since. How can she face them and especially what is she to tell Gia? How this plot all resolves itself is the story of the musical.
The best songs remain the lilting “It’s Time for a Love Song,” “Carmelina,” “One More Walk around the Garden,” “The Image of Me” and “I’m a Woman” (revised as “You’re a Woman” in Harmon’s new version). However the new songs by Harmon also include elegantly crafted lyrics in the style of Alan Jay Lerner. The show includes original songs by Lerner, revisions by Harmon with additional lyrics, and entirely new songs by Harmon and Lane. Under the music direction of David Hancock Turner at the piano plus bass by Joseph Wallace, the score is a thing of beauty in the well-created manner and very well sung. However, although Burns and Sorge give a fine rendition of their songs, as they were written for soprano Georgia Brown and bass Cesare Siepi, they seem a trifle out of their element: Burns’ songs seem too high to sit comfortably in her voice and Sorge’s songs seem a bit too low.
As Carmelina Campbell, Burns has just the right amount of Italian temperament as well as a convincing accent. Sorge’s lovelorn Vittorio puts one in mind of Marcello Mastrioanni movies in which he played a similar role. All of the other actors double in two roles each. Anne L. Nathan is as feisty as Carmelina as her servant Rosa. As Carmelina’s daughter Gia, MaryJoanna Castro is a lovely ingénue who stands up for what she believes. While Antonio Cipriano as her love interest, the fisherman Roberto, doesn’t have much stage time, he also plays the guitar and gives a lovely rendition of the opening number, “It’s Time for a Love Song.” As the three returning American soldiers, Braddock, Karzinski and Smith, Evan Harrington, Timothy John Smith and Jim Stanek make them totally different types and easily distinguishable. Almost all of the cast also appear as members of the staff of Eduardo’s restaurant in the opening and closing scenes.
Though not in the same class with Alan Jay Lerner’s masterpiece, My Fair Lady, Carmelina has a similar theme: how a young woman reinvents herself. While the three soldiers are under the impression that they invented Carmelina Campbell in the classic Pygmalion and Galatea fashion, in fact Carmelina has reinvented herself, also a major theme in the Lerner canon, along with Coco and Dance a Little Closer. This charming musical comedy also features a Tony Award nominated score which deserves a second and a third hearing.
Carmelina (January 26 – February 3, 2019)
Musicals in Mufti: Alan Jay Lerner Centennial Festival
York Theatre Company, Theater at Saint Peter’s 54th Street east of Lexington, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-935-5820 or visit http://www.yorktheatre.org
Running time: two hours including one intermission