When a show contains lines like, “I knew Rodgers and Hammerstein before they were married,” and “Are you from Brooklyn, New York?” and the response is, “No, Brooklyn, France,” you know there’s trouble. “Copacabana,” Barry Manilow’s musical comedy centered around his 1978 hit song, is a manufactured, plastic enterprise that tries to make up with sheer energy what it lacks in wit.
The slender story revolves around Stephen (Franc D’Ambrosio), a songwriter struggling to finish the title tune. These frantic efforts catapult him into another world where he becomes Tony, a pianist-composer working at the Copacabana. Lola (Darcie Roberts), a hick from Tulsa, shows up looking for a job as dancer, and Tony immediately spots her talent and charisma, an incredible feat given her abrasively silly, empty-headed character. Conflict surfaces when gangster Rico Castelli (Philip Hernandez), owner of the Tropicana in Havana, succumbs to Lola’s charms, kidnaps her and makes her a headliner in his club. His girlfriend Conchita (Terry Burrell) resents Lola’s ascent, and loyal, loving Tony shows up to rescue his sweetheart.
The story sounds better in outline than it plays. As written by Manilow, Jack Feldman and Bruce Sussman, there isn’t an ounce of tension. We don’t care whether Lola succeeds, whether she’s in danger or whether she gets together with Tony at the end. Lola never grows beyond the babbling, mindless girl seen in the second scene.
Playing Stephen/Tony, D’Ambrosio lacks the sexual electricity to carry off his modern “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” type role. He’s likable, animated and a skilled singer, but his role allows no room for believable, magnetic heroism.
Beth McVey fares better as a former Copa girl who shows Lola the ropes. The part is written too broadly, but she slams her way past the cliched dialogue with gutsy good humor and steals the show from the stars. Dale Radunz is an entertaining caricature as the Copa’s boss, and Terry Burrell adds needed sizzle as Rico Castelli’s jealous mistress.
Manilow’s music, with lyrics by Bruce Sussman and Feldman, is tuneful but so generically pop that it fails to further the action or shed light on the characters and their motivations. Songs like “Dancin’ Fool,” “When You’re a Copa Girl” and “Welcome to Havana” are excitingly staged by Wayne Cilento. Less effective is the show’s big ballad, “Sweet Heaven,” which states the obvious and has no genuine emotion to justify its expansive treatment. The show echoes old musicals, yet in “Sweet Heaven,” Tony is on a huge staircase a la “An American in Paris” and just stands there, rather than dramatically descending the steps.
Manilow’s score is expertly orchestrated, David C. Woolard’s costumes have an opulent flair and David Warren’s direction keeps the production moving at a fast clip. In the end, though, “Copacabana” never suggests the grittiness, tensions born of ambition and the colorful, competitive history of the Copa, or what made it a showbiz legend.