Monday, April 30, 2012

Off Off Broadway: Obama in Naples

L-R: Brian Childers, Elyse Knight and John Fennessy in OBAMA IN NAPLES.  Photo by Jonathan Staff.
It might not be necessary to be a first generation Italian to appreciate Obama in Naples, now premiering in translation from the original Italian at the June Havoc Theatre, but it certainly may help.  At least I think it might.  At the performance I attended yesterday, it seemed to me that more than half the audience consisted of first generation Italians and they certainly acted as if they enjoyed the production more than I did, at least based upon my reading of their frequent spontaneous outbursts of applause, chatter and laughter.
Perhaps it was that many of them actually had a firsthand knowledge of life in Naples – a knowledge I could not share, never having visited Naples myself.  Or maybe they were just culturally steeped in the historic beauty and tragedy that infuses Southern Italy in a way that I, not sharing their cultural history, simply cannot internalize.  Or maybe they just got some of the play’s “in jokes” that may have been lost on me.  I’m really not sure what the explanation is but the fact remains that I found the play, presented as a comedic musical, to be a not very entertaining muddle whereas I must admit that many others in the audience did appear to be quite entertained by it.

Obama in Naples was written by Claudio Angelini, a prominent Italian TV news anchor known as the Dan Rather of Italy. The play is billed as “a love poem to Naples with humor, satire and plenty of local color” and, indeed, it is both humorous and satiric in spots, but I do have difficulty seeing it as a “love poem to Naples.”  When I think of “love poems” to cities, I think of Woody Allen’s odes to Manhattan, Paris and Barcelona, and Obama in Paris just didn’t elicit any such reaction in me.

Obama in Paris is also billed as a funny, romantic play with songs about the dream of Neapolitan people to solve their problems through the "magic" of Barack Obama, the idea being that Neapolitans are especially susceptible to charismatic characters whom they perceive as potential saviors and that is a bit closer to the mark.  Apparently, more than thirty years ago, the Italian President Sandro Pertini inspired the people of Naples in the days following the disastrous earthquake that struck Southern Italy, and Neapolitans have been waiting ever since for another political savior to take his place. San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples, hasn’t done the city much good of late - Naples remains riddled with political corruption, poverty, and organized crime – and maybe, just maybe, the charismatic young American President Obama can take over where Pertini left off.

Paolo (Brian Childers), an American journalist originally from Italy, has returned to Naples to write a story on the reconstruction of Southern Italy since the earthquake that devastated the area in 1980.  (Back then, as a journalist, he had accompanied Sandro Pertini on his trip throughout the area). Since then, however, Paolo has been living in the US covering the White House and, as a consequence, he is now mistaken for an Obama correspondent or advance man. Pulcinella (Beau Allen), who also plays the role of the concierge at the hotel where Paolo is staying, has spread the rumor that Obama plans to visit Naples, to inspire and revitalize the city as he has done (or at least attempted to do) in America.  When Obama (Toby Blackwell) coincidentally does arrive, he is welcomed as if he were the new San Gennaro, if not the Savior himself.

The play is rife with a variety of silly sub-plots.  Paolo encounters a former lover, Madeline (Elyse Knight, who also plays the role of Hillary Clinton) and her friend John, an undercover CIA Agent (John Fennessy).  Gennarino (David Goldyn), the corrupt mayor, struts about with his lovely girlfriend (Jenna Dellacco).  Lorenzo, an intelligent but bumbling and self-destructive medical researcher (Scott Johnson) is in debt to the Mafia, jeopardizing not only his own future but that of his girlfriend Maria (Lauren Maslanik).  And Lorenzo’s aunt, the feisty Mother Concetta (Lin Tucci), is succeeding in keeping virtually everyone off balance.

Despite my general misgivings about the play’s overall structure, there are a number of things about it that I really did like.  For starters, the musical score is quite good.  Moreover, the cast as a whole is quite talented, both as actors and as singers. Brian Childers, in particular, has an outstanding voice and both Lin Tucci and David Goldyn are comic geniuses.  And both Toby Blackwell’s takeoff on Obama and Elyse Knight’s on Hillary Clinton would have made for great skits on Saturday Night Live.

So maybe all those first generation Italians in the audience were right after all.

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