Seldom, if ever, since “Little Mary Sunshine” or “Dames at Sea” has a musical spoof-orama chased its subjects with as much silly abandon as “Romeo & Bernadette.” The marketing hard-sell hawks Mark Saltzman’s confection as a blend of Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy with “Guys and Dolls” and “The Sopranos,” borrowing existing Italian songs for a pre-sold musical score. Under director Mark Waldrop’s power, the show glibly sells itself as proudly lowbrow, shamelessly cute, politically incorrect, retro-hip and, as far as the matinee bus crowd is concerned, basically adorable.
In a 21st century where a musical with a cast of 10 on a single set can be considered Broadway-sized, “Romeo & Bernadette” backers are already eyeing the Main Stem following a wave of huzzahs for its Miami preem. The Coconut Grove Playhouse and its partner on the show, New Jersey’s Papermill Playhouse, are Broadway-size houses, but whether Saltzman’s deliriously schmaltzy pastiche is the next “Thoroughly Modern Millie” isn’t entirely clear.
Saltzman, an Emmy-winning writer for “Sesame Street,” blunders into the musical comedy arena with all of Elmo’s enthusiasm and naivete, bowling over conventions while orchestrator Lou Forestieri powers the score with a Neapolitan-cum-’50s pop hit parade. “Romeo & Bernadette” folds vintage standards into the musical theater fabric as swooningly as Robert Wright and George Forrest’s “Kismet.”
The setup, though cheap and superficial, is effective. A Brooklyn Guy (Andy Karl) takes an intended conquest to see a cheesy “Romeo and Juliet” revival on a date. But Brooklyn Girl (Rosie De Candia) is so emotional distraught over the tragedy that she wants to go home and sleep it off, alone.
The Guy salvages a nightcap by making up a sequel: Romeo drank the Friar’s sleeping potion, not the poison, and awakens 500 years later — upstage, to enact the Guy’s tale.
Romeo immediately sets out to find the reincarnated spirit of his beloved Juliet, finding it in a luscious tomato named Bernadette, daughter of the Brooklyn Penza mob family. Our hero, not surprisingly, becomes entwined with the rival Del Canto family, setting Shakespeare’s familiar plot in motion.
Adam Monley is a handsome, well-bred boy-next-door as Romeo, with a silky singing voice and enough straight-man presence to withstand the heat of Natalie Hill’s moxie as Bernadette — foul-mouthed but lyrically fascinating.
Karl and De Candia join the fantasy as the second-billed romantic couple; he’s Dino, the Del Canto scion, and she’s Donna, the neighborhood Rizzo (yes, there’s even a little “Grease” at the bottom of this pot).
David Brummel, working off his recent touring “42nd Street” and Broadway “Sweet Smell of Success” assignments, convincingly plays and sings Don Del Canto. Charles Pistone is the less urbane Penza godfather, with Emily Zacharias as his frustrated wife.
Bernadette is betrothed to the anointed Penza successor Tito (Andrew Varela in a Pacino-esque turn). Vince Trani is Lips, an hilariously archetypal soldier in the Penza gang. John Paul Almon rounds out the cast in a variety of increasingly outrageous cameo roles.
Forestieri and musical director-arranger Bruce W. Coyle reset the Italian ballads in the now-nostalgic ’50s pop milieu of Bobby Darin, Connie Francis, Frankie Avalon, et al., for the principal solos and duets. The larger vocal groupings retain more of the sumptuous contours of the late 19th-century source material.
Composers include Leoncavallo (“Mattinata” becomes a choral “Moon Over Brooklyn”), Bellini (“Vaga Luna” builds from a duet for Bernadette and Donna to a quartet with the guys), Rossini (“La Danza” is strongman Tito’s soliloquy/manifesto) and Francesco Tosti.
Production design is large-scale regional. The ’50s stylistic motif is carried out in Michael Anania’s set, a two-story wrought-iron latticework with alcoves everywhere to truck in specific props suggesting locations from Verona’s opera house to an airport terminal, florist shop, catering hall, church and Bernadette’s boudoir. Miguel Angel Huidor’s costumes are just short of “Guys & Dolls” garish. F. Michael Dana’s lighting and Steve Shapiro’s sound are the only subtleties on view.