Review: ‘Rizzo’ at The Philadelphia Theatre Company

A thunderbolt hit Philadelphia last night in the form of the play Rizzo. The quake was made memorable not only by the superb playwriting of Bruce Graham and the multi- megaton production by Philadelphia Theatre Company and Theatre Exile, but by the exquisite timing. Opening just after the first presidential debate and running through the next month, Rizzo creates a powerful community service for a desperate time in American history.

Frank Rizzo (Scott Greer) cancels Philadelphia’s Frito-Lay contract as Reporter (Damon Bonetti) meets Abie (William Rahill). Photo by Photo by Paola Nogueras.
Frank Rizzo (Scott Greer) cancels Philadelphia’s Frito-Lay contract as Reporter (Damon Bonetti) meets Abie (William Rahill). Photo by Photo by Paola Nogueras.

The story of Philadelphia’s strongman mayor, (1972-1980) is already the stuff of legend.  The play cunningly works on two fronts. First, those residents who lived through the era can mine their personal experiences of the strongly divided opinions of Frank Rizzo, who was loved and hated with equal vehemence. Those patrons new to the city can revel in the jaw dropping resemblance to a certain Republican Presidential Candidate.

Rizzo was known for his off-the-cuff statements, that demonstrated his approach to government and law and order. Graham takes most of these quotes directly from the biography by Sal Paolantonio. Here are some classics.

“A conservative is a liberal who got mugged the night before”
“The way to treat criminals is break their heads.”
“I’m going to make Atilla the Hun look like a faggot.”
“There will never be another me.”

Graham’s act one, has Rizzo in police uniform. Starting as a quick-on-the-nightstick beat cop, he rises in the ranks by creating an atmosphere of anxiety, mistrust and fear.

The streets are safe in Philadelphia. It’s only the people who make them unsafe.

The people he refers to are the city’s many African Americans.  Rizzo never came to understand that he was a racist. In one scene, he denies making blatant bigoted remarks. When played a recording of these comments, he STILL denies it. The concept of police brutality does not exist in Rizzo’s world.There is only the need for police protection.

“This is war.” The Philadelphia Police could “invade Cuba and win.”

The second act sees Frank Rizzo as a contentious mayor. His bully tactics, hunger for power, and paranoia actually serve the city in many ways, but this is contradicted by his nepotism, lies, and desire for an illegal third term.

The production, directed by Theatre Exile’s Joe Canuso, could not be better. Photos and videos by Christopher Ash enhance the simple rowhouse scene design by Colin McIlvaine. Katherine Fritz’ costumes shrewdly create the “thug in a well tailored suit” aura of the mayor, as well as the variety of Philadelphians that fill out the story. Mike Inwood’s quick-change lights and Michael Kiley’s sound and music keep the action moving in a fast paced/filmic style.

Scott Greer channels the former mayor with uncanny precision. His performance is comparable to a king in a Shakespearean History Play.  Greer captures the bullying brutality of Philly’s first “mayor of the people” but also manages to convey the charm and complexity of this well-loved/hated politico.

The rest of the cast plays hundreds of small roles, and it’s hard to believe there are only six of them, so well do they switch dialects, class divisions, and ethnicity. Standouts include Amanda Schoonover, (the only “broad” as he refers to women), as Rizzo’s homespun wife as well as Shelly Yanoff, one of the mayor’s harshest critics, and Steven Wright, as Rizzo’s loyal bodyguard, and a number of irate citizens. It’s hard to believe this isn’t a cast of hundreds. The others are Damon Bonetti, Robert Daponte, Paul L. Nolan, and William Rahill.

Father and son Frank (Scott Greer) and Ralph Rizzo (William Rahill) argue about Frank’s police tactics. Photo by Paola Nogueras.
Father and son Frank (Scott Greer) and Ralph Rizzo (William Rahill) argue about Frank’s police tactics. Photo by Paola Nogueras.

The funniest, (and most frightening) moments in Bruce Graham’s play naturally relate to our current events. As Director Canuso has stated:

The play’s story is so relevant to what’s happening today. We still struggle with racial unrest, economic instability and class warfare. As we move into our presidential election, Rizzo can help us look back, clear our heads, learn from our mistakes, and move us forward.

Anyone interested in this country’s future should run to the Suzanne Roberts Theatre.  Our readers in Washington and New York will naturally wonder “Will the play be produced around the country after the election?”  If the Republican candidate wins, it will certainly attest to the famous statement:

He who ignores history, is destined to repeat it.

Running Time: Two hours with intermission.

Rizzo plays through Sunday October 23, 2016 at Philadelphia Theatre Company in The Suzanne Roberts Theatre – 480 South Broad Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets call (215) 985-0420, or purchase them online.

‘Rizzo’ at Theatre Exile in Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy.


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