Thursday, January 22, 2015

Review: Little Italy Comes to Life in SERRANO THE MUSICAL

Chad Doreck, Suzanne Petrela, and Tim Martin Gleason

Holy moly that’s a lotta dick jokes in one show. The comedy is crass, sexist, and just about everyone gets dealt a stereotypical blow in one way or another in Serrano the Musical. That’s not to say it isn’t funny; it is, but lowbrow humor runs rampant in this world premiere musical so if that’s your kind of thing, you’re gonna love it. Suffice it to say I’m probably not the prime demographic.

The story is a twist on Cyrano de Bergerac, set in Little Italy, and follows the machinations of two mob families led by Don Reyo (Peter Van Norden) and Don Malafonte (Matthew Henerson). Rostand’s eloquent Cyrano, complete with his unmistakably prominent nose, becomes Serrano the gangster (Tim Martin Gleason), right hand thug to Don Reyo, and secretly in love with Rosanna (Suzanne Petrela), daughter of the judge who could put Don Reyo away for good. To prevent that from happening, Don Reyo enlists Serrano to help his idiot nephew Vinnie (Chad Doreck) deflower her, thus compromising the girl and providing a way for the judge to be blackmailed. So Serrano finds himself between a rock and a hard place. In order to keep his job, and his life, he must turn Vinnie into a smooth-talking Romeo to seduce the one girl he longs to have for himself.

The creative team comes from the world of television and film with Serrano being their first theatre production. I found it interesting that the book & lyrics were written by a woman, Madeline Sunshine (Webster, The People Next Door, and The Julie Andrews Show) because the musical’s overall voice and style of humor is so distinctly masculine. She packs an awful lot into the book (show runs close to three hours with an excellent cast of 12 playing 28 different characters) but it can be confusing at times when the story digresses.

Music is by Robert Tepper, who has written songs for such singers as Pat Benatar and Paul Anka, as well as films like Rocky IV and Say Anything. Stylistically there is one of everything: a ‘50s “Greased Lightning” number, a ‘60s pop number, a lounge act number, a ‘70s Carole Bayer Sager number, a ‘70s disco number, a big Broadway belt number (one of the best), a  Les Miz number, a Tango number, and a couple of arias and drag numbers…you get the picture. Musical director Jeff Rizzo elicits a bright and ballsy sound from the ensemble in the various musical styles.

Luckily the cast is game and director Joel Zwick is a master at setting up a joke and delivering the punchline. Its a technique he certainly perfected from directing over 600 episodes of television and successful films like My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Fat Albert but I much preferred the laughs that came from the situational comedy and character idiosyncrasies rather than the endless stream of cheesy joke after joke after joke.

Chad Doreck and Tim Martin Gleason

Gleason’s Serrano has a tough exterior but he is utterly charming and wonderfully sympathetic when you least expect it. Some of his finest moments happen with Doreck who lights up the stage as the uneducated Vinnie, a young man with more depth than anyone gives him credit for except Serrano. Petrela is suitably sweet as the virginal Rosanna and Chad Borden’s drag queen numbers are pure over-the-top fun.

Peggy Hickey, who most recently choreographed A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, pulls out all the stops with her delicious choreography which often steals the show. Ensemble members have multiple opportunities to strut their stuff. Three hoods and a nun (James Tabeek, Tom G. McMahon, Craig McEldowny, and Valerie Perri) are a welcome running gag throughout. Tabeek and McEldowney also shine in one-off scenes, the former in a nightclub dance feature with Kristina Miller and the latter as Serrano’s aging father... although it’s pretty far-fetched for Serrano to have to check with his operatically-gifted dad for permission to have plastic surgery.

Stephen Gifford’s festival-attired stage is authentically Little Italy, from its kitschy backdrop of red, white, and green streamers to its checkered tablecloths and neon-inspired signs, giving lighting designer Leigh Allen plenty of room to apply color in bold strokes. Byron Batista is especially creative with Serrano’s “Nose” design which I’m sure presented unique challenges for Gleason as a singer. It isn’t easy to design a prosthetic that won’t restrict the singer’s breathing or get in the way of the tone and Gleason was clear and in control at all times. Michael Mullen adds a number of visual surprises to his costumes that also rake in the laughs.

Peter Van Norden and Tim Martin Gleason

(Back Row) Craig McEldowney, Valerie Perri, Chad Borden and Barry Pearl;
(At Table) Chad Doreck, Suzanne Petrela and Tim Martin Gleason

Suzanne Petrela and Tim Martin Gleason

Tim Martin Gleason, Suzanne Petrela, and Chad Doreck

The Company of Serrano the Musical

January 8 - March 29, 2015
The Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave. in West Hollywood.
Performances are Thurs, Fri and Sat at 8:00 pm; Sun at 3:00 pm.
Tickets: (323) 960-7774 or

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