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Theater: Once Upon a Time in New Jersey
2006-08-02

This article shared 3627 times since Wed Aug 2, 2006
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Playwright: Susan DiLallo, Stephen Weiner

At: Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire

Phone: 847-634-0200; $42-$45

Runs through: Sept. 10

By Jonathan Abarbanel

Once Upon a Time in New Jersey is a pleasantly bland boy-girl tuner with nothing steamier than a kiss. It won't light up Broadway, but this world-premiere musical might find an audience among second-tier theaters seeking entertaining pabulum with modest musical demands.

It's 1956 in 'Joisy,' where unassuming ( but good-looking ) Vinnie LoBianco runs the family deli and secretly loves Angie Moscato, an angel who's crushing on Rocco Fabrizio, a womanizing greaser ( think Fonzie all grown up but minus the conscience ) . When Rocco hits on a jealous mobster's wife, he's dead meat ... unless he can persuade Vinnie to switch places with him and teach Vinnie to be a ladykiller. It ends with virginal Vinnie and Angie united, no one rubbed out and Rocco a priest. For all these improbable reasons, the show is framed as a fairy tale.

Susan DiLallo's pithy book ( just over two hours with intermission ) has little typical musical padding, but is predictable and derivative nonetheless. It doesn't apologize for its limited ambitions or commonplace Italian-American stereotypes.

Her lyrics are better. An Act I patter song for two hoods posing as priests ( 'God Knows, Mrs. LoBianco' ) is laugh-out-loud funny; ditto regarding an Act II showstopper in pidgin Italian that works 'quando scungilli,' tutti-frutti, Alfa-Romeo, Perry Como and baseball's Phil Rizzuto into the lyrics, set by composer Stephen Weiner as a mock Neapolitan love song.

Weiner's pleasant pastiche score suits DiLallo's lyrics well, with hints of 1950s doo-wop ( the girl trio 'One of a Kind' ) and suave Jerry Vale-style Italian pop. The orchestrations—agreeably different for an uptempo show—are long on woodwinds and short on brass, but they lack flavor ( despite a sharp eight-piece band ) . For instance, that early rock signature, the yackety sax, is missing.

The engaging company of Once Upon a Time in New Jersey is up to the usual standard. Fair-haired Jim Weitzer's Vinnie is suitably naïve and sweet-singing. As Angie, Kathy Voytko combines kittenish sex appeal with freshness, but still can't convince us that Angie would fall for loutish Rocco. I saw understudy Matt Orlando as Rocco. While not a physical mirror for Weitzer ( which the plot requires ) , Orlando's swivels, grooves, great comic chops and strong voice sold the character.

Much-admired director/choreographer Marc Robin seems wasted on the show. Robin is a high-concept guy while this old-fashioned tuner is low-concept and without major dance numbers. The show certainly offers untapped ( pun ) dance opportunities.

Once Upon a Time in New Jersey is pleasant and dismissible, a show that might do well as dinner theater and community fare. The engaging performers are more talented than the show requires, which might be enough for those with simple tastes in entertainment, but it's not quite enough for me.


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