Reviewed by Dan Berkowitz
Serrano, the boisterously entertaining new musical at the Matrix Theatre, has a lot going for it: crackerjack direction, dazzling choreography, bravura performances, stunning costumes, and an infectious desire on the part of everyone to make sure the audience has a good time. That the story is too complicated for its own good and really doesn’t make much sense – aaah, so what? If you’re in the right frame of mind, the polished professionalism on display will ensure you have a fabulous evening of theatre.
First things first: no, Serrano is not about a chili pepper. It’s an update of Cyrano de Bergerac – you know, the guy with the humongous nose – set in New York’s Little Italy, with the Frenchies transformed into Italian American wise guys and Mafia molls. Cyrano = Serrano. Get it?
The jumbled plot has Serrano D’Angelo, a Mob family “enforcer” – who also happens to be a Renaissance man capable of spouting poetry on the spot – being recruited to take the rough edges off wise guy Vinnie Pepperini, so that Vinnie can seduce the beautiful and chaste Rosanna Spumonte, the daughter of a judge (who used to be friends with Serrano’s father) and who’s now about to preside over a case involving the Mob, because the judge will then have to recuse himself, allowing another judge who’s in the pocket of the Mob to… oh, never mind. It’s awkwardly set up, confusing to follow, and who really cares anyway?
As Serrano – “poet, lover, hit man” – Tim Martin Gleason is the sturdy tentpole of the production. Acting well and singing beautifully, Mr. Gleason provides a grounded center for all the madness around him. The two big problems: (a) can we really believe that someone so sensitive and romantic is an amoral hit man who calmly cuts off someone’s finger onstage? and (b) if so, do we want to root for him, especially since there are so many other colorful and appealing Little Italy types swirling around him?
And they are colorful. The splendid cast includes Suzanne Petrela as Rosanna, with a crystalline voice and a plucky spirit which allowed her to dance and frolic about the stage on opening night, despite having broken a toe a few days earlier.
Chad Doreck’s Vinnie is a man women swoon over, but none swoon over him as much as he does himself. Mr. Doreck’s sweetly sublime stupidity gives us some of the biggest belly laughs of the evening.
There isn’t a weak performance among the supporting cast, many of whom play multiple roles. Among the standouts are Barry Pearl, as a trusty goombah sidekick, and Tom G. McMahon, who, among other parts, scores as a sleazy hood, a touchy drag queen, a terrible lounge singer, and the rear end of a motorcycle.
Special mention must go to Valerie Perri, who stands out doing triple service: as a Don’s nymphomaniac daughter – a whack-job who coos to her plants, but whacks the petunia when it doesn’t grow fast enough; as a singing and dancing nun; and, most memorably, as Rosanna’s mother, Sophia, whose brassy musical advice to her virginal daughter – “Be a Broad” – brings down the house.
While you may not wake up the next day humming the music by Robert Tepper, it works well
for the show, and a few numbers (such as “Be a Broad”) noticeably goose the energy. And the book and lyrics by Madeline Sunshine have enough jokes – some of them deliberately groan-inducing – to keep smiles on the audience’s faces throughout.
Director Joel Zwick has coaxed confident, robust performances out of his cast, and keeps the pace crackling, leaving you little time to dwell on the show’s flaws. Jeff Rizzo’s musical direction makes the most of the small band, and the choreography by Peggy Hickey makes even better use of the small space, often taking off with hilarious flights of imagination: her staging in “One, Two, Three Waltz” riffs on so many musical theatre and dance clichés that it becomes a masterpiece of physical comedy. Tech credits are solid, with Stephen Gifford’s spare but evocative set, Leigh Allen’s effective lighting, Byron Batista’s fanciful wigs and make-up, and especially Michael Mullen’s elaborate and witty costumes.
But back to Serrano cutting off the guy’s finger: see, he was supposed to kill the guy, and the fact that he only amputated a digit is presumably meant to show his deep-down decency. However, the gasp from the audience was loud, the ick factor was major, and the character never recovered enough to win over our hearts.
And this brings me to the most serious problem with the show. Serrano tries hard to be entertaining, and for the most part it succeeds. But even The Book of Mormon – possibly the crudest, rudest musical written to date – has a transcendent moment, that point in every successful musical where your eyes grow moist and your heart swells because you care about what happens to the characters. The old adage is that people sing in musicals because their emotions are too big for mere words. There’s lots of energy in Serrano, but, despite a flat-footed effort to introduce some seriousness late in the show, no genuine heart. Which is a shame, because with the intelligence and the talent and the money which has gone into this show, it deserves its trancendent moment.
Serrano the Musical
Book and Lyrics by Madeline Sunshine
Music by Robert Tepper
Musical Direction/ Arrangements by Jeff Rizzo
Choreography by Peggy Hickey
Directed by Joel Zwick
Through March 29
7657 Melrose Avenue
West Hollywood, CA
Tickets available online at www.serranothemusical.com or by calling 323-960-7774.