Romeo and Bernadette is a transporting, fun time
From Rick and Ilsa to Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar, some of the great love stories of all time have ended with our heroes going their separate ways, including the most famous of tragic lovers, Romeo and Juliet. But in this age of reboots, everyone gets a second chance, including Romeo, in Mark Saltzman’s Romeo & Bernadette: A Musical Tale of Verona & Brooklyn, one of the most diverting works of entertainment currently to be found on the new York stage.
Of course, Romeo and Bernadette the show has had to weather almost as many ups and downs as the couple who inspired it. Felled first by the pandemic shut down and then having its return delayed earlier this year by Omicron, director Justin Ross Cohen’s show can finally see the light of day once more. The musical takes place in Brooklyn, half a century ago. A man, Brooklyn Guy (Michael Notardonato), eager to impress his date (Ari Raskin), a college student majoring in English, has taken her to the theatre. Or, at least, his version of it: a community theatre production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The gestures backfires when she becomes overwrought by the play’s tragic ending, Brooklyn Guy does some quick thinking and – in a New York minute – extemporizes a new ending to the tale.
In this expanded version, it turns out that Romeo has not died by poison but rather imbibed a sleeping potion from the Friar. He has awakened 500 years later, Encino Man-style, in Verona, which is where this adlibbed play-within-a-play begins. Romeo (Nikita Burshteyn) believes he spots his Juliet at the opera, when it is, in reality, a very twentieth century mafia princess named Bernadette (Anna Kostakis),vacationing with her parents, Camille (Judy McLane) and Sal (Carlos Lopez), don of the Penza crime family.
Romeo then pursues Bernadette back to her home in Brooklyn, where he befriends Dino Del Canto (also Notardonato), whose father Don (Michael Marotta) is the capo of a rival organized crime family. Dino, family consigliere, also teaches Romeo the ways of the New World, including dropping his Elizabethan verse for a series of “fuh-gedda-bout-its.” But history repeats itself – as Romeo continues to court his fair Bernadette, he once again finds himself between two families at war with each other. And his bad luck doubles down on him and Tito Titone (Zach Schanne), Bernadette’s fiancé, gets a whiff of Romeo ‘s interest in her.
Full of fun and without an ounce of pretense, Romeo and Bernadette knows exactly what it is – a comedic charmer for a red sauce audience, with sly nods to other Shakespearean works and even to Romeo and Juliet descendant West Side Story. Structurally, the show also nods to other Shakespearean strokes, as seen in the form of Bernadette’s bestie, Camille (also Raskin), a surrogate for The Nurse, and the second act opening number, which calls out what events will befall the characters next.
And this Italian lovefest makes a meal out of its music. In addition to the show’s book, Saltzman has also written the lyrics, while Steve Orich did the musical supervision, arrangements, and orchestrations, channeling the spirit of Vic Damone and Dean Martin in songs like “Boom! In Love,” “O, for a Song,” and “A World Away.” (Think “That’s Amore” with a soupcon of Donnie Brasco tossed in.) Visually, the creative teams works marvels . Joseph Shrope’s 1960s costumes and Daniel Lynn Evans’ costumes and hair designs embrace the looks of the era (in addition to distinguishing between the Romeo of the Old World and the New World), while Ken Billington’s lighting and Walt Spangler’s scenic design turn back time to the Brooklyn of the Camelot era.
The entire cast sings in strong voice, though there are several standouts, including Broadway stalwart McLane as Bernadette’s mother, injecting real love and pain into the role of someone married to the mob (all she wants is a little attention and for her family to show a little class), and Burshteyn, whose deep tenor voice resounds throughout the theatre. Most notably, though, it’s Notardonato, all cunning humor and machismo, who gives a star-is-born performance. One hopes that this production can one day transfer beyond its current perch in midtown’s Theater 555 to somewhere even bigger so more people can discover these performers’ gifts. (Troy Valjean Rucker, proving himself a veritable chameleon in a series of small roles, and Viet Vo, as Lips, the Penza bodyguard, round out the winning cast.)
All the elements combine to make a winning night of theatre. After all this time, Romeo and Bernadette has arrived, and it is just the antidote we need.
Romeo & Bernadette: A Musical Tale of Verona & Brooklyn