Bush-Era Banality

Few questions asked, little revealed in these productions

In some ways schlock is similar to pornography: You may not be able to define it, but you know it when you see it, and there's a lot of it to be seen on South Florida stages this season. The Coconut Grove Playhouse seems particularly interested in schlock musicals. Earlier this season the playhouse served up a high-energy thudder, Urban Cowboy. Now along comes Romeo & Bernadette, a cheerfully stupid retro that might be just the perfect show for the George W. Bush era. If you're looking to waste some time on recycled ideas, cartoon characters, and tunes you will forget before you make it back up the aisle, then maybe this show's for you.

Mark Saltzman's show is basically a High Concept one-joke gag: What if Shakespeare's Romeo ended up in Brooklyn and fell for a mobster's daughter? The show within a show follows the efforts of a Brooklyn lothario in 1960 who takes his date to a low-rent production of Romeo & Juliet. She's in tears that the story ends sadly and wants to go home for a good cry. Seeing his dreams of late-night romance about to disappear, the guy spins out a happy alternative ending to placate the doll. Hence the inner story: Seems that Romeo never really took poison as per Shakespeare; he took a sleeping powder and woke up in today's tourist-infested Verona.

Once awake, he hits the bricks looking for his lost love. Instead he spots Bernadette Penza, daughter of a Brooklyn mob family, now sightseeing in advance of her wedding to career-obsessed goombah Vito. Romeo, who still speaks in Shakespearean English, approaches Bernadette thinking she's Juliet but is quickly rebuffed by the suspicious, foul-mouthed moll. The Penzas head back to Bensonhurst followed by Romeo. There he rescues Dino, son of a rival mob family, from an attack by Vito, thereby gaining the protection of Dino's dad. Dino thinks this Romeo is a weird cat, but helps teach him how to talk and act like the Brooklynese while Romeo teaches Dino a thing or two about romance, as Dino goes after a local beauty queen. Meanwhile Bernadette readies to wed the domineering Vito, although her heart goes a-flutter when Romeo comes courting. The warring mob families come to a near showdown as Bernadette is about to marry Vito, but Romeo intervenes to stop the impending violence, a heroic act that has several happy consequences.

Bernadette and Romeo and songs signifying nothing
Bernadette and Romeo and songs signifying nothing


Book and lyrics by Mark Saltzman, with traditional Neopolitan music arranged by Louis Forestieri, directed by Mark Waldrop. With John Paul Almon, Natalie Hill, Andy Karl, and Adam Monley through Feb. 2 at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, 3500 Main Hwy; 305-442-4000.

Saltzman's perky comedy plotting is augmented by his often-clever lyrics, set to an array of classic nineteenth-century Italian melodies with some clever jazzy arrangements by Louis Forestieri. All of this portends a new hit, maybe like Kiss Me Kate, but that promise doesn't pan out. Romeo & Bernadette delivers no memorable tunes, no knock 'em dead dance numbers, no striking staging or production elements.

What it does offer -- the plot, the jokes, and the central romance -- are pleasant but very very typical. Saltzman, who garnered early recognition and a string of Emmys writing for Jim Henson's Sesame Street, is still in Muppet mode. His characters are cartoons, and derivative ones at that: the Mob boss, the teen queen, the lovelorn swain, the suave Guido.

As is often the case with schlock, this project is saved in good measure by its hard-working cast, headed by Andy Karl, a Harry Connick, Jr., look-alike who plays both the Brooklyn lothario and Dino. Karl's cool crooning voice and slick hipster moves really make the show click when he's on. The show's other comic card, John Paul Almon, helps out with a series of sly cameos, especially a couple of quick drag turns in the second act. Natalie Hill is a feisty, tough-talking Bernadette, but she doesn't have much to work with -- you have seen this character a bazillion times. Same goes for this Romeo. Adam Monley is handsome and earnest in the role and adds a rich romantic voice, but the character lacks dimension, humor, or pizzazz. He's just a chivalric good guy plodding toward his intended like a single-minded bloodhound.

You can tell why Romeo appeals to Bernadette -- he's a gentleman amid a bunch of goons. But Saltzman never clarifies just what he sees in Bernadette, except that she's a ringer for Juliet. Since the entire show hinges on this unquenchable urge, you'd think we'd find out what drives the guy.

But we don't and we never find out much about love, either. It's as if Saltzman was so thrilled to come up with a story hook, he just rushed off to cobble a plot for it without bothering to think through the underlying idea. In fact Romeo & Bernadette has less to do with romantic love and more with the civilizing effects of courtesy. The Renaissance Romeo treats the lowlife Brooklynites with great respect. The goombahs are startled and think he's nuts, but he starts to rub off on them and they begin to doubt their crude, rude behavior. This is the one original aspect to the show. But while the idea is certainly and repeatedly there, it's completely overlooked in this production.

Director Mark Waldrop directs with a bouncy energy where bold innovation is called for: It looks crisp and professional but thoroughly routine. He is not much aided by Michael Anania's ugly set, a series of drab scaffolds and platforms and hanging signs. Miguel Angel Huidor's costume design may be aiming for a wry take on tacky Brooklyn style, but the result is merely garish without the wit that should accompany it. Fortunately F. Michael Dana's evocative lighting helps give some needed emotional shape to this show. Unfortunately that help is to little avail.

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