There is an existential angst that dwells in the heart of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, a brilliant poet smitten by love who feels stunted by his physical inadequacies. A similar affliction strikes TV gangster Tony Soprano who can run a business but not his own family. Combine Cyrano with Soprano and you get Serrano The Musical, the immensely appealing though still rough around the edges comedy by Madeline Sunshine with music by Robert Tepper. Direction by Tony-nominee Joel Zwick (My Big Fat Greek Wedding), combined with Sunshine’s TV-writer past (Webster), makes a wittier than expected crowd pleaser aimed squarely at the tourists of Times Square.
Set around the Feast of San Gennaro, the opening number, “La Festa Di Tutti Le Feste” is a tarantella to introduce the milieu and characters in rousing but stereotypical fashion. The gangsters of Serrano are as true-to-life as the denizens of Runyonland, cartoonish and often hilarious, but nothing like the real thing. Working for local boss, Don Reyo, Serrano (Tim Martin Gleason) is a Little Italy hit man with a big schnozzola who leans on guys when he has to, though not too much on account of he’s the cultured, poetic type, see. In order to put pressure on a judge in a case against him, the Don wants Serrano to introduce his hunky nephew, Vinnie (Chad Doreck) to the judge’s introspective daughter, Rosanna, (Suzanne Petrela). Once Vinnie gets her pregnant, the judge will have to recuse himself. Problem is Vinnie is a cretin and Rosanna is a lady, in fact she’s the only lady Serrano has ever had eyes for. Nevertheless, he is to turn Vinnie into a gentleman so Vinnie can get in her pants.
A subplot involves the Don’s estranged gay son Nickie (an enthralling Chad Borden) who manages a nightclub where he performs in drag. Borden has two memorable numbers, the hip-hop(pish) “Diddle Me” and “I’m Hot,” both with his Dishy Tarts singing back up, but this subplot mainly seems to exist for the sake of checking off the drag-queen box on the list of musical musts.
Chad Doreck has the show’s plum role in Vinnie, grabbing the audience in his big first act number, “Do You Want Me?” and with his corny malapropisms gets many of the night’s biggest laughs. The plot places Doreck in varied costumes, including a ballet leotard and full drag, before the final curtain. Despite the actor’s strong comedic chops and charisma, as a character Vinnie suffers from little development and emotional range and becomes less compelling in the second half as the focus shifts to Serrano and Rosanna.
As Serrano, Gleason stands out among a cast of strong singers, almost too much so. A veteran of Phantom of the Opera touring company, his voice has the strength and resonance to fill a theater, but the Matrix is only a room and the neighbors can hear. His first act ballad, “Rosanna” is sung as a tour de force, but it’s one of composer Tepper’s weakest numbers, the other being Serrano’s second act solo, “Day In, Day Out.” Gleason is pitch perfect in both but neither song has the charm of “A Gentleman,” a witty piece sung with Paulie and the Hoods, nor the slyly suggestive “One, Two, Three Waltz,” a duet between Serrano and Vinnie that brims with sexual tension. At his most vulnerable, Gleason sensitively portrays Serrano’s secret heartbreak, but as someone who’s too smart for the room, he can be a bit of a drag.
The cast’s sweetest surprise is Suzanne Petrela who seizes her chance in the spotlight capturing Rosanna’s innocence and gradual awakening with nuance and emotional candor. Her voice is radiant, though it helps that her songs are among Tepper’s more memorable, including “What Do You Want in a Man?” sung with Nicky, and the follow-up, “Bad Boy,” which answers the question. By the time she’s gulping Tanqueray and flopping about in “Be a Broad (Reprise)”, (following her mother, Valerie Perri’s advice in the first act’s vaudevillian show stopper), she’s come a long way.
At a running time of two hours and 40 minutes, Serrano The Musical can use some trimming, maybe done with a hatchet. Tepper’s 26 songs range from memorable to forgettable and the plot stalls out midway through the second act, but that’s not to say there isn’t a lot more good than bad here. Sunshine has an ear for clever lyrics and dialog, and director Zwick’s smooth rhythm with his ensemble is a perfect complement to the book’s sly banter and music hall moves courtesy of choreographer Peggy Hickey (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder).
What they’ve come up with is a highly entertaining work in progress only an iteration or two away from its full potential. To see it now is a chance to see what might turn out to be a big hit still in its nascense. And even if Sunshine and Tepper never burst out the front door of the 99-seat Matrix Theatre and march down Melrose Avenue with it (as they seem destined to do), Serrano is a hell of a good time just as it is.
Cast: Tim Martin Gleason, Suzanne Petrela, Chad Doreck, Barry Pearl, Valerie Perri, Chad Borden, Peter Van Norden, Matthew Henerson, Craig McEldowney, James Tabeek, Tom G. McMahon, Kristina Miller, Jonathan Sharpe, Michelle Loucadoux
Director: Joel Zwick
Book and lyrics: Madeline Sunshine
Music: Robert Tepper
Choreography: Peggy Hickey
Set designer: Stephen Gifford
Costume designer: Michael Mullen
Lighting designer: Leigh Allen
Presented by Mark Wolper, Steve Sunshine, David Geha, Spencer Proffer, Phillipa Sledge and Beth McCauley