NOTES: Lerner, Lane, and Stein’s “Carmelina”
“Mamma Mia!”, cries an exasperated maid in the farcical, act one closing moments of “Carmelina”, a forgotten Broadway flop from 1979 resurrected as the first installment of the York Theatre Company’s annual “Musicals in Mufti” series of staged concerts.
That phrase takes on added meaning 40 years after being penned by bookwriters Joseph Stein (“Fiddler on the Roof”, “Zorba”) and Alan Jay Lerner (“Brigadoon”, “My Fair Lady”, “Camelot”)—who also wrote the lyrics—because “Carmelina” happens to lay claim to the same source material as the 2001 megahit musical “Mamma Mia!”. Instead of the Greek Islands, though, this story takes place in an Italian village, twenty years after World War II.
A sweet and funny adaptation of the 1968 Italian film “Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell”, the titular character, a strong and dead-pan-humorous Andréa Burns (“In the Heights”), shares her bed with three American GIs over the course of one month. Then the war ends, they go home, and she finds herself pregnant. To avoid shame in her small, Catholic town, Carmelina creates a mythical father for her child: the war hero “Eddie Campbell” who died in battle.
In reality, she separately informs the three men of their parenthood, each supporting her with monthly checks until converging upon the village 20 years later for a reunion of their regiment.
Carmelina, who has been chaste since, is pursued by a local restauranteur (Joey Sorge, “A Bronx Tale”) while her daughter (Mary Joanna Grisso), who unexpectedly returns home from finishing school in Siwtizerland, is wooed by a young suitor (Antonio Cipriano, “Jagged Little Pill). Hapless amid all the action is Carmelina’s maid, Rosa (the hilarious Anne L. Nathan, “It Shoulda Been You”).
Nary a pop beat to be found, the classic musical theatre score is provided by Burton Lane (“Finian’s Rainbow”, “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever”), his last for the stage. After a rocky out of town tryout, “Carmelina” was soundly mocked by critics upon arriving in New York in 1979—an antique in a season boasting Sondheim and Wheeler’s revelatory “Sweeney Todd”.
40 years later, though, this pared down production makes a strong argument for revisiting the show. Despite their common roots, “Carmelina” is tighter than “Mamma Mia!”, boasting higher stakes and a more focused character plot.
The secret weapon is Joseph Stein’s charming book, revised by Barry Harman and director Michael Leeds. A master at painting compelling portraits of ethnic small town life—from Jews in Russia (“Fiddler”), to Greeks (“Zorba”), and French (“The Baker’s Wife”)—the happiest surprise of “Carmelina” is the comedy.
It is easy to see why this is the third time Artistic Director James Morgan has produced “Carmelina” at the York Theatre Company, following mountings in 1996 and 2006 using the template of a version created for London.
While it closes tomorrow, “Carmelina” is but the first of three obscure musicals written by Alan Jay Lerner presented as part of this year’s “Mufti” series. Check out “The Day Before Spring” (1945) and “Lolita, My Love” (1971) next.