Romeo & Bernadette

by Rob Lester

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday January 28, 2020

Anna Kostakis and Nikita Burshteyn in "Romeo & Bernadette"
Anna Kostakis and Nikita Burshteyn in "Romeo & Bernadette"  (Source:Russ Rowland)

It may have taken well over 400 years, but there's a knockout, out-and-out hilarious new take on Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" so clever and well performed that you can say it's been worth waiting centuries for. And, like that famed couple, you may find yourself quickly falling in love (with the material and performances). Hyperbolically, referencing the original's ending (which is how the new piece begins), it is to die for.

The madcap musical Romeo & Bernadette: A Tale of Verona & Brooklyn takes place in those two locations, but really in the vivid imagination of an impatient theatre attendee dying for the dying scene in a local production of the Bard's romance to end ("Die Already!" he insensitively pleads). Shortly we are lucky observers of the fantasy as an ardent, unpoisoned Romeo somehow time-travels to 1960. Still in Italy, he searches for Juliet, finding a vacationing American lookalike he's sure is the real deal and, with fierce determination, seeks her again when she returns home to a foreign land called Brooklyn. She's the tough-talking Bernadette, daughter of an organized crime family figure and is already engaged. Long-feuding Mob families stand in for the Montagues and Capulets, and jealousies and tempers and love all to expert comic effect.

The melodies are adapted from classic Italian pieces with genuine musical comedy flavor, driving the energy and joy, and well-matched or cutely odd-coupled lyrics are juicy with sarcasm and lowbrow character. Name-dropping Brooklyn neighborhoods and other specifics heightens the "local color." Mark Saltzman's writing of both sung and spoken words is consistently apt and entertaining. Director-choreographer Justin Ross Cohen nails ideal pace and movement that never flags or sags or belabors the labor of lovers. Unseen but not unappreciated music director/keyboardist Aaron Gandy and his three bandmates add enormously to the sheen of a well-oiled machine.

The well-cast performers are sublimely satisfying. Wide-eyed Nikita Burshteyn is a marvel as the fish-out-of-water Romeo, occasionally peppering his elegant Elizabethan language style with a crass accented Brooklynism like "Fuhgettabout it!!!" This actor playing this star-crossed lover is himself a star for sure. (California's loss in leading roles is hopefully New York's gain for more to come.) Anna Kostakis as the spoiled, sneering Bernadette is spot on; Ari Raskin as her pal, a kindred spirit in snarky dismissiveness is a hoot, raising eye-rolling and withering looks to an art form. Broadway veteran Judy McLane as Bernadette's long-suffering mother cooks up moments of more realistic emotion as well as cooking up laughs and linguini. Lovingly embracing the male chauvinist/ Italian/Mafia cliches and trigger-happy personalities (literally), the demonstrated tics, tempers, and timing are among the talents of Carlos Lopez, Michael Notardonato, Michael Marotta, Zac Schanne, and Viet Vo, with versatile Troy Valjean Rucker deftly scoring in appearances as everything from a priest to an opera singer, with a couple of roles in drag.

The plot is appealingly full of twists. Despite the premise, the proceedings do not rely slavishly on parallels with Shakespeare's story or make much of the ambience of touchstones of American life in 1960. These Italian Americans of Brooklyn are in their own bubble. And this show bubbles over with bonhomie and brilliant touches. Wouldst thou find fairer folly? Methinks not.

"Romeo & Bernadette" is at the A.R.T./New York Theatres on West 53 Street and Tenth Avenue, presented by Amas Musical Theatre, in association with Eric Krebs. For information, tickets, etc., visit the Amas Musical Theatre website.

ROB LESTER returns to Edge in 2019 after several years of being otherwise occupied writing and directing musical theatre shows, working as a dramaturg, arts consultant, and contributing articles and reviews to various outlets. His long-running "Sound Advice" column covering cast albums and vocal CDs has been running regularly at for almost 15 years.