SoCal’s major regional houses can eat their hearts out they didn’t get first dibs on the World Premiere of Serrano The Musical, while L.A. musical theater aficionados can rejoice that this sensational contemporary adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac told Goodfellas style is making its debut in the up-close-and-personal intimacy of the Matrix on Melrose.
Could there be a more guaranteed crowd-pleaser than the storyline Edmond Rostand first came up with a hundred-eighteen years ago, updated here by book writer-lyricist Madeline Sunshine and composer Robert Tepper?
Boy-loves-Girl-who-loves-Another tales may be a dime a dozen, but when “Boy” is a poet cursed with a schnozzola to make Durante’s seem petite, “Girl” is Girl-Next-Door lovely, and “Another” happens to be the hottest-if-dumbest guy in town (who needs Boy’s words to make Girl’s heart beat even faster), when then you’ve got something special, a tale that has kept audiences entertained from its 1897 debut to its 1950 film adaptation (starring an Oscar-winning José Ferrer) to Steve Martin’s 1987 hit movie romcom Roxanne.
Creative teammates Sunshine and Tepper have transformed Cyrano de Bergerac into the equally humungously-honkered Serrano D’Angelo, whose poetic heart and soul are the last things you’d expect from mob boss Don Reyo’s top enforcer and occasional hit man.
Serrano The Musical’s set-up is a straighforward one. About to stand trial for assorted crimes, Don Reyo (Peter Van Norden) finds himself in dire need of a judge partial to La Famiglia. Unfortunately, what he’s got is a mobster’s worst enemy—a jurist not on the take. Fortunately for the Don, next in line to preside is one of the mafia’s own, meaning that all Don Reyo needs to do is get that annoyingly upright judge to recuse himself from the case and it will be smooth sailing ahead.
And so Il Capo recruits Serrano (Tim Martin Gleason) to school dumb hottie Vinnie Pepperini (Chad Doreck) in the art of fine conversation, thereby allowing Vinnie to seduce the good judge’s poetry-loving daughter Rosanna Spumonte (Suzanne Petrela), secure evidence of the above, and voila, the case is in the bad judge’s hands.
If only Serrano weren’t madly, impossibly in love with Rosanna since childhood. If only, he had Vinnie’s nose.
If it’s been said since time immemorial (or at least since Shakespeare first wrote it) that “The play’s the thing,” it is book, music, and lyrics that count most for a musical with Broadway dreams, and in all three target areas, Serrano The Musical hits a musical comedy bull’s-eye.
Sunshine’s F-bomb-peppered book is as irreverently funny as books get, her lyrics every bit as smart and snappy as her dialog, and Tepper’s melodies could hardly be more infectiously catchy. (Click here to listen to some of the best of the bunch including the rousing show opener “La Festa Di Tutti Le Feste,” the uber-romantic stunner “Rosanna,” and the instantly infectious girl-group beats-&-notes-infused “Bad Boy.”)
Of course even the strongest of material can fizzle when in the wrong hands, something Sunshine and Tepper have avoided in the sizzlingest of ways by securing the directorial talents of Joel Zwick (who knows his Mediterranean-Americans backwards and forwards, having directed My Big Fat Greek Wedding) and choreographer Peggy Hickey, Outer Critics Circle Award-nominated for the current Broadway smash A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder, to create one supremely imaginative dance sequence after another, from hoods in top-hats-and-canes to drag queens in sequins-and-stilettos to a singing-dancing nun.
As for the musical’s stars, Sunshine, Tepper, and Zwick could not have secured the talents of a more perfect Serrano than Gleason, topping his lead performance in Sleepless In Seattle The Musical with his utterly winning, gloriously sung star turn here. Petrella is pure magic as Rosanna (and has an exquisite pop soprano to match), Doreck is Danny Zuko-licious and a guaranteed laugh getter as Vinnie, and the dynamic duo of Peter Van Norden and Matthew Henerson are marvelously, menacingly matched as mob bosses Don Reyo and Don Malafonte.
Supporting performers are as fabulous as supporting performers get, beginning with Chad Borden as Don Reyo’s disowned but out-and-proud drag queen son Nickie, a role the L.A. stage treasure invests with equal parts glamour, gravitas, grit, and sass.
As for Valerie Perri, the First National Tour Evita may have given a career best performance a couple years back as Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond, but the stage star has never been more out-and-out sensational (and downright revelatory) as she is here in a trio of roles—slutty blonde Lily Reyo, hard-drinking red-headed judge’s wife Sophia Spumonte, and triple-threat nun.
Stage/screen vet Barry Pearl and gorgeous newcomer Kristina Miller score in their terrific cameos as (respectively) Paulie/Stu Getz and Ang, but it’s the triple-threat-astic trio of Craig McEldowney, Tom G. McMahon, and James Tabeek who may well be the year’s scene-stealingest scene-stealers in multiple comedic roles each, from their trio of hoods-in-black to their triplet drag queens, each more “eye-catching” than the next.
Recent Broadway-to-Hollywood transplant Tabeek is handsome, hunky, and hilarious as closet-case mobster Jimmy Balducci (in addition to doubling as dance captain); McMahon could not be more deliciously delightful as the aptly named Jerry Three Fingers and Sinatra wannabe Frankie Tata; and L.A.’s busiest musical theater star McEldowney scores again, most notably as the still feisty oldster Papa D’Angelo, while revealing bona fide operatic chops as a Verdi-singing tenor.
It did take some time for this reviewer, not normally a Mafia movie fan, to get used to the idea of Killer as Hero, and I must confess to having ended up a tad confused as to just who was doing what to whom about halfway through. Still, these are minor quibbles, particularly given Sunshine and Tepper’s ingenious, crowd-satisfying way of tying together plot threads in Serrano’s stand-up-and-cheer finale.
Scenic Designer Extraordinaire Stephen Gifford has come up with a gorgeously festive red-green-and-white set that serves as multiple locales without a second lost in scene changes. Leigh Allen lights Gifford’s design and Michael Mullen’s spectacularly imaginative, eclectic costumes quite gloriously indeed, with additional kudos going to property master Hallie Baran and wig/hair/make-up design whiz Byron J. Batista (who also designed “The Nose,” sculpted by Sticks & Stones FX Studio).
Miller understudies the roles of Rosanna and Lily, with Michelle Loucadoux alternating in Miller’s role. Jonathan Sharpe is Tabeek’s alternate.
Tiffany Thomas is production stage manager and Gil Tordjman is assistant stage manager. Brian Murphy is associate musical director. Gail Melichar and Debbie Blount are production assistants. Casting is by Michael Donovan, CSA.
Leigh Fortier is producer, with “It Takes A Village” credit also due executive producers Ann Lopez, Barry Meyer, Paula Mae Schwartz, and Tom Stamatios Hiotis, and associate producers Natan Vaisman, Rob Goldberg, Stephanie Goodman, and The Cuzzes.
Audiences are in for a real treat as Serrano The Musical begins what ought to be a hugely successful run at the Matrix, one harbingering great things ahead. Simply put, it’s the all-around best World Premiere musical I’ve seen debut on an L.A. intimate theater stage in years.
Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles.
January 16, 2015
Photos: Brian McCarthy