By: Paulanne Simmons
January 26, 2020: It may seem a little difficult to imagine Romeo and Juliet as a comedy. But Michael Saltzman’s Romeo and Bernadette: A Musical Tale of Verona and Brooklyn proves that with creativity and imagination, Shakespeare’s iconic tragedy can be turned into a comic tour de force.
Saltzman has invented a narrator, The Brooklyn Guy (Michael Notardonato), who creates a sequel in order to impress his girlfriend, The Brooklyn Girl (Ari Raskin). According to The Brooklyn Guy, Romeo (Nikita Burshteyn) drank a sleeping potion and not poison. That potion kept him slumbering until 1960, when he awoke and fell in love with a girl he thinks is Juliet, although she’s really Bernadette (Anna Kostakis), on vacation with her father, the lovable street-smart mobster, Sal Penza (Carlos Lopez) and his culture-loving wife, Camille (Judy McLane).
Romeo makes it to Brooklyn, where he finds Bernadette, with the help of Dino Del Canto (Notardonato), son of Don Del Canto (Michael Marotta), a more sophisticated version of Sal. Oh, and by the way, the Penza and Del Canto families are longtime enemies.
To complicate matters, Bernadette is about to marry Tito Titone (Zach Schanne), an abusive, up-and-coming thug. She’s also got a friend, Donna Dubacek (Raskin), a tough-talking girl that catches Dino’s eye.
Saltzman has ingeniously given traditional and classic Italian melodies his own very clever lyrics. This ensures that the music is not only fitting but also quite wonderful. Most of the songs mix romance and humor as in “There’s Moonlight Tonight Over Brooklyn” (“Magnolias are blooming in Flatbush/The subways are running for free/What used to be called Coney Island/Tonight is the Isle of Capri”).
Director and choreographer Justin Ross Cohen doesn’t need lots of scenery to tell the story. Set designer Walt Spangler makes effective use of a few props and curtains. And Fabio Toblini and Joseph Shrope’s costumes give us the time and place. Most of all, the enthusiastic cast makes this low-budget, unassuming comedy work.
Some of the actors onstage are making their off-Broadway debut and pretty obviously need a few more years to hone their considerable talents. However, Notardonato and Burshteyn are both ready for prime time. Burshteyn manages to be a convincing Romeo in both Verona and Brooklyn, where he tries to master the local customs and language. And Notardonato is a lovable sidekick with his own romantic aspirations. Special mention must be given to Troy Valjean Rucker, who plays a multitude of characters from an opera singer to a priest, with various female roles thrown into the mix.
So, while West Side Story gives us a more tragic modern version of Romeo on Juliet on Broadway. off-Broadway, Romeo and Bernadette offers a more humorous take on that same story. The difference is their points of view and about a hundred bucks.
Romeo and Bernadette: A Musical Tale of Verona and Brooklyn ****
Amas Musical Theatre A.R.T./New York Theatres
502 W. 53rd Street, NYC
Tuesdays at 7:00pm
Wednesdays at 8:00pm
Thursdays at 8:00pm
Fridays at 8:00pm
Saturdays at 3:00pm & 8:00pm
Sundays at 3:00pm
Through February 16, 2019
Photography: Russ Roland