And so begins How Alfo Learned to Love, by Vincent Amelio. Played by Thom, Alfo is an engaging protagonist. Much of that is due to this charming and charismatic actor with an eye for comedy and a heart that keeps the show grounded. Vying for future ownership of his family’s bakery, Alfo has the raw potential to be a great baker but knows nothing about business. His sister Belinda (Jenna D’Angelo) is—conversely to Alfo—business oriented, and believes that she is more deserving of the family business than her brother.
Traditional nepotism would see the family business passed down to the first born son, but the Idello’s have a family rule which complicates things: Alfo and Belinda’s parents (Robert Funaro and Joanna Bonaro as Sal and Maria Idello, respectively,) will only pass on the business to a member of kin who is married and raising a family. At the outset of the play, neither Belinda nor Alfo are married.
In his dual mission of finding a right woman and also proving his worth to his parents, Alfo is guided by his deceased Grandpa (Armen Garo), who appears on stage but is only seen by Alfo and the audience. Grandpa, sometimes kicking Alfo down a few notches and other times providing him with positive reinforcement, is an entertaining companion with the valuable advice the misguided Alfo needs in order to grow up and get on with his life.
Much of Alfo’s misinformation is thanks to his childhood best friend, Tony Vallone. Played by Dominick La Ruffa, Jr., Tony provides much comedic relief in the form of overcompensated masculinity and general machismo. Though the character of Tony—most-likely intentionally—is written statically, his purpose in the script is clear and is a consistent source of laughter.
As Alfo is navigating through the story trying to figure himself out, an old flame comes back into the fold. Gianna Gionfrida, played by the electric Lauren Nicole Cipoletti, is the girl from Alfo’s past that got away. Whether a coincidence or a sign from the universe, Gianna and Alfo are reunited and the stage is set for Alfo’s ultimate test. Cipoletti plays Gianna both as a 16-year-old and as an adult, and she does a fine job distinguishing between the two. Grown up Gianna has a more contained physical presence and story behind her eyes which contrasts nicely with the younger, more youthful characteristics associated with the teenaged Gianna.
Produced at Theater B at 59E59 Theaters, the set design by Steven C. Kemp is efficient. Most of the play takes place in the Idello family bakery, with a few tables, chairs, and wedding cakes making an appearance when needed. Costumes by Kevin R. Reed channel the awesome 80’s when needed in flashbacks, contemporary dress when it comes to present day Alfo and company. This is maintained throughout is a style which is authentically Italian—Grandpa is almost always wearing a large trench coat and bowler, and Alfo’s parents’ look appears to have been taken straight from the bakery down the street.
Directed by Daisy Walker, How Alfo Learned to Love is chock full of Italian-American stereotypes. The characters are just heightened enough that the gimmick works, but there is also a lot of heart behind this story. Walker has brought to life a group of characters who are quirky and lovable, and in the end it really feels like a family affair. All of this is contingent on Thom’s performance as Alfo whose character arc is fleshed out and brimming with variety. This redemption story about learning to love is a rollicking good time. Backed by strong performances and direction, a slick and consistent pace, and an entertaining script which sticks to a winning formula, nary a soul is likely to leave this theater without a smile.
How Alfo Learned to Love (through January 3, 2016)
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.59E59.org
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes including one intermission
A romantic comedy for the stage that is backed by a talented cast and a whole lot of heart.