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

Details

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.

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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.

After a stop at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, the state that invented schlock, this production is reportedly aiming for a Broadway run. It may please the bridge-and-tunnel crowd, but I cringe when I think what will happen when Manhattanites get out their knives. Better to swim with the fishes.


Schlock out, schlock in. While Romeo & Bernadette strives to make it to New York, New York has retaliated by dumping schlock of its own in our neighborhood. One such delivery is on view at GableStage, which is presenting Dirty Blonde, a wholly forgettable exercise in competent but pointless stagecraft.

The show, a long-running New York hit, was created by actress/writer Claudia Shear largely as a vehicle for herself to portray the legendary star Mae West. The play features Mae's career, sorta, while also following the offbeat romance of two of her modern-day fans. Mae's history is presented in straight-ahead factoid scenes -- her life in vaudeville, her involvement with several men, her problems with the censors, her shaping of the Sex Queen stage image. Amid this history parade is the tale of Charlie, a reclusive film archivist and raving Mae fan who travels to her grave on her birthday. There he encounters another Mae fan, Jo, a chunky, insecure wannabe actress. The awkward pair certainly connect in their fascination with Mae, and click, kinda, romantically.

Jo is fascinated that Charlie actually met the aged Mae in her Hollywood home. Charlie even has one of Mae's gowns, which he urges Jo to don for a costume ball. But then Jo discovers that Charlie likes to wear the gown himself. Will Jo go to the ball with Charlie, both dressed as Mae West? So goes the Big Dramatic Question in Dirty Blonde and that, my friends, is about as fine an example of schlock as you are ever gonna get.

There is some real dramatic potential to the history of Mae West. She certainly created a unique persona, and her frank sexuality anticipated the modern era by many decades. But this show reveals nothing about West; it just shows her cracking smart one-liners and rolling her eyes at her own innuendoes. What motivated this driven, lonely woman and who she really was are issues left completely unexplored.

As to the Charlie/Jo plot, I suppose a story about two gown-wearing, celebrity-worshipping fetishists in love has an appeal to some but, as Miles Davis might say and did: So what? The play tries to drum up some moral lessons about bravely going where your heart leads you -- you can almost hear another Davis, Sammy, bleating out "I've Gotta Be Me" (or maybe "I've Gotta Be Mae") -- but surely there's a better story to be told than this.

If this stuff has to be produced, at least it's being done competently. Joseph Adler's production is quick-paced, sleek, and good-looking. Rich Simone's minimalist set, a series of quick-sliding curtains and panels, is a big asset here. The trio of actors has a field day playing several roles. Margot Moreland slips back and forth between playing Jo and Mae with ease. She's especially good at playing the old Mae, hobbling around in a bad wig and a cloud of memories. Ian Hersey is solid as Charlie and a few other roles. But the real scene-stealer is David Kwiat, who plays Mae's ex-boxer confidant, a supercilious English director, and a flurry of other characters. Kwiat seems to pop up in every other area production -- from an embittered Yiddish actor in Smithereens to a string of wackos in Comic Potential to a haunted Irish drinker in The Weir. Every one of those characters memorable. Sadly, not so with Dirty Blonde.

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