There is a novelty song from the '60s entitled "Everybody Wants To Be An Art Director." And to a certain extent this is true, except in the world of the theatre, where everybody wants to write a musical. This certainly seems to have been true for Sadie Penzato, who has tried to turn her informally charming and chatty memoir Growing Up Sicilian and Female into an informally charming and chatty musical, with very mixed results.
Growing Up Sicilian and Female, both the book and the musical, chronicles Penzato's childhood as a first-generation Italian-American on an upstate New York apple farm in the 1940s. But what worked for Penzato on the page doesn't necessarily work for her on the stage, and that is where most of the problems with this nascent work are. Penzato's story has very strong musical possibilities: a full complement of larger-than-life characters, a colorful setting, and a moving central story concerning the struggle of the children of immigrants, particularly Penzato's older sister Caroline, to break free of the European traditions that hold them back from assimilating. But as it currently stands, the show is still very tightly tied to its literary roots: there seems to have been little or no attempt at reworking the material to fit into the very different requirements of the musical-theatre form. There are long stretches of arid expository narrative that are occasionally broken by a song that seems to be a placeholder for another, better song yet to be written. (Penzato collaborated on the naively melodic score with Bob Spallina.) Character development relies mainly on stereotypic clichés that would have raised deafening cries of ethnic prejudice if the whole thing hadn't been written, directed, and produced by people of Italian descent. This was most apparent in the characterization of Penzato's brutal father, who could have been singing "omma da most-a unhappy-a fella" for all of the imagination and sensitivity on display.
Under the direction of both Jay Michaels and Mary Elizabeth MiCari, only Jillian Hahn (as Caroline), MiCari, and Werner Pauliks stood out from the large cast. Hahn was marvelous, managing to create a fully rounded character from the thin material. MiCari, hampered by too small a role (and a horrendous Italian Mama wig and costume) nevertheless gave a lovely performance of supportive warmth, while Pauliks's all-too-brief appearance as a nervous suitor of Caroline's left a strong impression of a talent not used to the full.
The physical aspects of the production were only so-so: Margo La Zaro provided serviceable period costumes (with the exception of the aforementioned outfit for Mama), and Werner Pauliks provided a serviceable unit setting and dark, less-than-serviceable-lighting. The lack of sophistication in the visual aspects of the show was made even more distressing because the one thing made clear by both the book and the musical was that the Penzato family were not poor immigrants - they had the largest house in the neighborhood, they owned their farm outright, and were able to hire migrant workers as needed. Mama may have made the clothes for the family, but only because she could do it better and with more style than any manufacturer.
Penzato's instinct to musicalize her story was a good one, but in its current form Growing Up Sicilian and Female needs much work under the guiding hand of experts in the musical-theater form. Perhaps Penzato can be encouraged to collaborate with an experienced musical book writer and composer (there are hundreds in this city) to help her mine the rich gold from her story and turn it into the musical it could, and deserves, to be.
(Also featuring Lisa Apatini, Amy K. Brown, Michael D'Antoni, Derek Devareaux, Michael Fortunato, Taylor Hooper, Patricia Israel, Matthew Klein, Jessica Lynn, Monica Mannarelli, Frank Rosner, Robert F. Saunders, Andrew Westney, and Michael Kearney Wright.)
Book: 1 Music: 1 Lyrics: 0
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Copyright 2001 Doug DeVita