Romeo & Bernadette, A Musical Tale of Verona & Brooklyn has returned Off Broadway with its original cast and proves to be as delightful and charming as ever. This spoof of Shakespeare’s tragedy now recast as mash up of a modern rom-com and a gangster story has a clever book by Mark Saltzman and his equally witty lyrics to classic Italian melodies, both melodic and famous adapted by Steve Orich. With the exception of the handsome Nikita Burshteyn as the titular lover, the cast impersonating Italian Americans from deepest Brooklyn play their roles to the hilt and are so convincing in caricaturish roles that they bring off this difficult feat. Credit director/choreographer Justin Ross Cohen with making this a very entertaining evening in the theater.
The story is framed by the tale of the original Romeo and Juliet. A street wise Brooklyn guy takes a Brooklyn college girl to a performance of Shakespeare’s tragedy, and when she is upset by the ending, he decides to tell her the real story. According to him, Romeo took a long draft of a sleeping potion rather than poison, and woke up 400 years later in 1960. He immediately sees a girl he thinks is his Juliet, but is Bernadette, daughter of Sal Penza, a Brooklyn mob boss who is visiting his wife’s relatives in Verona. When she brushes him off, he follow them back to New York City but loses them along the way.
Saving Dino, son of a rival mob boss, Don Del Canto, from an assassination attempt, they adopt Romeo and Dino attempts to bring his courtly ways up to 1960 courting. Romeo locates Bernadette but she is now engaged to one of her father’s disciples, the thuggish Tito Titone. Romeo attempts to woo her against the better judgement of Dino and his father, while Dino falls for Donna, Bernadette’s best friend. After a series of chance encounters, Romeo meets Bernadette at her wedding to Tito who is finally exposed as the thug he is and all ends happily.
The lush score includes such songs as “Caro Mio Ben,” “Marechiare,” and Leoncavallo’s world famous “Mattineta” now transformed into the romantic ballad “Moonlight Tonight over Brooklyn,” and composers such as Tosti, Rossini, Bellini, Giordani, and Cannio. Music directed by Aaron Gandy, the cast who all have top-notch singing voices join in various combinations for a glorious musical feast. Walt Spangler’s versatile set made of PVC pipes converts into an opera house in Verona, Bernadette’s balcony, her father’s patio, The Church of San Valentino, a bridal shop and “The Florist of Arden.” With Ken Billington’s vivid lighting which uses a different color for each set, the show is as bright and lively as a street fair. The costumes by Joseph Shrope are a show in themselves, from Romeo’s Renaissance outfit to Bernadette’s mother Camille’s sophisticated 1960’s designer dresses, to the gangsters’ casual day togs and Bernadette Donna’s chic sportswear.
The cast could simply not be better and they seem to be enjoying their roles enormously. Burshteyn is utterly charming as the courtly Romeo up against Anna Kostakis’ tough-as-nails Brooklynite as his lady love. As Bernadette’s parents, Carlos Lopez as the uncultured Sal and Judy McLane as the educated Camille, make a most unlikely comic couple. Ari Raskin as Bernadette’s best friend, the wise and bruised Donna is most endearing. Michael Notardonato as the adaptable Dino who learns fast and Zach Schanne as the set-in-his-ways Tito make interesting opposites.
Michael Marotta’s Don Del Canto, described by the others as a real gent, is as courtly as Romeo and much wiser. Viet Vo as Sal Penza’s hefty bodyguard turns out to be a big surprise as a muscleman who is extremely educated. Stealing every scene he is in is Troy Valjean Rucker, demonstrating tremendous versatility and flexibility as opera singer Enzo Aliria, understanding Father Keneely, very gay florist Arden, martinet dance instructor Viola Violovitch and knowing Bensonhurst dress shop owner Roz.
Romeo & Bernadette is a musical comedy worthy of the name that delivers on all counts. Mark Saltzman’s spoofing of the old story is great fun and his lines are very clever. The score with its famous melodies transformed in new ways is a lush feast for the ears particularly as sung by this excellent cast. Under Justin Ross Cohen’s direction the cast brings this far-fetched story to brilliant life. One only hopes that the threat of the real story of Hamlet comes as a follow-up.
Romeo & Bernadette (through June 26, 2022)
Theater 555, 555 W. 42nd Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.romeoandbernadette.com
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission