Shakespeare meets the Mafia in ‘Romeo & Bernadette’ at A.R.T./NY Theatres

When their date at a lamentable community theater performance of Romeo and Juliet leaves a Brooklyn Girl in tears and a Brooklyn Guy bored to tears, he needs to prove to her that he really is smart and sensitive, to persuade her to go out with him again. So he weaves an updated upbeat tale of what actually happened to Romeo after the curtain went down on Shakespeare’s tragedy in Amas Musical Theatre’s production of Romeo & Bernadette, now in its Off-Broadway premiere at A.R.T./NY Theatres.

Anna Kostakis and Nikita Burshteyn (center) and the cast. Photo by Russ Rowland.

The new musical spoof, with book and lyrics by Mark Saltzman and music adapted from classic Italian melodies (musical supervision, arrangements, and orchestrations by Steve Orich; music direction by Aaron Gandy), is set in Brooklyn and Verona in 1960, where the feisty Bernadette Penza and her crime family are preparing for her upcoming wedding to the brutish mobster wannabe Tito. As it turns out, Romeo didn’t really die, he just took the sleeping potion, not the poison, and awakens to find Bernadette, who bears a striking resemblance to Juliet, on a pre-nuptial trip to her mother’s ancestral Verona. Mistaking her for his lost love, he follows her back to NY, into the midst of a raging 20th-century Mafia war between the Penzas and the rival Del Cantos (which, in a remarkable case of déjà vu, recalls the Shakespearean feud between the Montagues and Capulets), to profess his undying devotion to her – even if he has to die to do it.

Sound ridiculous? It is, in all the wackiest and wittiest ways! The madcap time-traveling rom-com is filled with clever references to Shakespeare and clashes between the Bard’s refined Elizabethan style and the pop culture of the ‘60s, in its lampooning of the traditional stereotypes and clichés of Italian mobsters, mid-century greasers, and heavy Brooklyn accents that are now laughably dated and laughingly delivered by an entertaining cast of ten, under the high-spirited direction of Justin Ross Cohen (who also provides terrific segments of ’60s-style choreography).

Nikita Burshteyn and Michael Notardonato. Photo by Russ Rowland.

Leading the cast through Romeo’s wildly imaginative follow-up story is Michael Notardonato in a stellar New York debut as the Brooklyn Guy and his alter-ego Dino Del Canto, who befriends the lovesick hero of his invented narrative and teaches him how to dress, what to say, and how to mispronounce it (“Dino Diction”), to fit in with the local greasers. His spot-on moves and dialect, hot looks and charismatic attitude, tuneful voice and underlying heart strike an irresistible balance of parody and humanity and command the stage from the moment the show starts (when, from his seat in the community theater audience, he tells Romeo and the histrionic Juliet to “Die, Already”) to the happier ending he creates for the parallel pairs of young lovers (“When He Looked at Me That Way”). Ari Raskin, also making an impressive Off-Broadway debut, makes for a great counterpart as his love interests Brooklyn Girl and Bernadette’s best friend Donna Dubachek (who rails against the “ass-grabbin’ guidos” and drops a hilarious pre-#MeToo line about her crowning as queen of the neighborhood festival).

In the titular roles of the mismatched lovers, Nikita Burshteyn is a respectful, romantic, and “fancy” Romeo and Anna Kostakis (in another NYC debut by the emerging members of the cast) has the foul-mouthed fire, fast temper, and growing self-worth of Bernadette, which makes her question her situation with the vicious Tito (played by Zach Schanne) and reconsider the value of Romeo’s loving kindness and constancy. Will she succumb to his ardent pursuit of her hand, or to the retaliatory gunfire of the Del Cantos?

Bringing their star power to the show are Broadway veterans Judy McLane and Carlos Lopez as Bernadette’s parents Camille and Sal Penza. He’s a street-smart mob boss who is happy to spoil his extravagant wife and daughter; she’s an avid shopper with a taste for the expensive things in life, distaste for her husband and daughter showing “no class,” and inherent pride in her familial heritage in “Verrrona.” Both capture the humor of their characters’ stock personalities, along with some glimpses of their inner psychology and development; she captivates with her natural stage presence and emotive solos (on “Farewell, Verona” and “Hail the Contessa”), which number among the show’s musical highlights (though none of the songs is particularly memorable once you’ve left the theater or as a stand-alone hit).

Judy McLane and Troy Valjean Rucker. Photo by Russ Rowland.

Also contributing strong vocals and skilled comedic portrayals are Michael Marotta as Dino’s father Don Del Canto, an elegant old-world Mafioso (who does a sidesplitting double-take when, in their trio on “A World Away,” his and Romeo’s resonant verses of Italian classics are followed by his son’s more modern selection), and Troy Valjean Rucker, who plays a range of roles, both male and female, with distinction, impeccable comic timing, and a rich voice (his response to Camille scratching a vintage LP he’s performing as opera singer Enzo Aliria is priceless, as is his besotted reaction to Romeo in his turn as Bernadette’s florist, whose name conjures an amusing allusion to Shakespeare). Rounding out the cast is Viet Vo as Lips, the Penzas’ tough no-nonsense bodyguard (until he isn’t).

The setting of the narrative in the ‘60s is beautifully supported by Fabio Toblini and Joseph Shrope’s authentic vintage costumes (and anachronistic garb of Romeo) and Ken Billington’s colorful Pop-style lighting. Walt Spangler’s minimal scenic design (augmented with such apropos period props as a portable record player and a pink princess phone) allows for easy transitions on the intimate A.R.T. stage.

Romeo & Bernadette offers a zany take on Shakespeare, translated to the comic tastes and stylings of mid-century America by a fine cast and team. It’s a lot of fun and an uproarious reminder of the universality of his themes, even in the most unlikely of places!

Running Time: Approximately two hours, including an intermission.

Romeo & Bernadette plays through Sunday, February 16, 2020, at Amas Musical Theatre, performing in the Mezzanine Theatre at A.R.T./NY Theatres – 502 West 53rd Street, NYC. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.


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