Once Upon a Time in New Jersey” is stuffed with enough food references, from gorgonzola to calzones to scungilli, to make you hungry. After all, this is a musical comedy — set in a cartoonish version of 1950s Hoboken — where “prosciutto” very naturally rhymes with “cute.” But it’s often a lot easier to whet one’s appetite than to sate it, and thus it goes with this show receiving its premiere at the Marriott Theater outside of Chicago. Sweet as cannoli, but not really sincere, modestly amusing and charming throughout but absent genuine wit, this musical works hard to please and occasionally does, but still feels like a generous serving of appetizers without the main course.
The stylized story focuses on Vinnie (Jim Weitzer), a bookworm working in the family deli, and his unrequited love for Angie (Kathy Voytko), the girl who slices salami there with him. She’s smitten with Rocco (Will Swenson), the swaggering stud with the black leather jacket, bouffant hair and corny one-liners that cause all the women to go crazy.
“All the women love him,” goes the song that accompanies his entrance, “Though he lies and misdemeans/All of them through Jersey down through Brooklyn into Queens.” Think of Rocco as a mixture of Fonzie and Danny Zuko from “Grease,” but dumber, and with a dose of Don Juan.
After the two male leads are well-established as exact opposites — Vinnie is all smarts and sweetness — the plot contrives to have them trade places. Vinnie transforms into Rocco so he can win Angie, while Rocco transforms into a nerdy deli-slicer to avoid the rage of local gangster Billy Castiglione (Matt Orlando), jealous over Rocco’s attentions to his voluptuous wife, Celeste (Christine Sherrill).
Composer Stephen Weiner and librettist Susan DiLallo are quite successful at establishing a world apart from reality; there’s playfulness aplenty, and many of the set pieces possess an undeniable theatrical sparkle.
The high point is a scene in which the disguised Rocco tries to bring Angie and Vinnie together with a song of ludicrous Italian and even more ridiculous sentimentality. “Quando scungilli,” he sings after making sure nobody really speaks the language, “Means come to me sweetheart/Quando scungilli/Means come to me now.”
But despite sequences like this, infused with an inspired lunacy, and performances that are as engaged as anyone could hope for, the characters, the music and the humor just never ascend to anything consistently involving. The show comes across like reading a comicbook — the type one just flips through waiting for the next frame with the next predictable punchline. It’s Bazooka bubblegum stuff, good enough for a skit but not for a full-length musical.
It doesn’t help that Weiner’s music never shakes off the sound of “Volare” as played through an organ grinder. The cheesiness is undoubtedly intentional, but still overcooked, and it was even something of a relief when the sound system went out on opening night. With a small orchestra offstage and behind glass for this theater-in-the-round, the cast performed the final number a cappella.
Maybe director Marc Robin and his high-quality leads, all with Broadway experience, could bring it down a notch to some effect. When jokes aren’t that funny, pushing them big time doesn’t make them funnier. But it’s hard to blame them for hamming it up when that’s so clearly called for. Weitzer and Swenson both have a blast playing stereotypes and then their mirror images. And as Angie, Voytko brings the show what heart — and melody — it has.
They’re entertaining performers who add a lot of tasty condiments to a show ultimately limited by its stale ingredients.