The Italian sun shines brightest on "Carmelina," last night's new Alan Jay Lerner-Burton Lane musical comedy starring Georgia Brown and Cesare Siepi at the St. James, when it is reflecting on old love affairs. It has only thin rays for a present one.
That's too bad, because there's a great deal to enjoy and admire about this eminently likeable show, especially the songs dealing with the subplot, one of them an absolute stunner and the evening's single unqualified show-stopper.
"Carmelina" derives from an allegedly true story that also was used as the basis of a 1968 movies, "Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell." It deals with an Italian World War II "widow" who for 17 years has been receiving monthly allowance checks from three former GIs, any one of whom may have fathered her daughter Gia. To her fellow villagers in "San Forino," she is the greatly respected Mrs. Campbell, a name Carmelina took from a soup can and around which she invented a Lt. Campbell who was killed in action.
On a summer day in 1961, members of the "Cambell" regiment, including the three "fathers" and their wives, are revisiting the little town they once took from the Germans.
This piquant situation is what has engaged the book writers (Lerner and Joseph Stein) and songwriters (lyricist Lerner and composer Lane) the most, and it does the same for us. But so that all may end tidily, there is the serio-comic proprietor of the village caffe, Vittorio, who has longed for Carmelina but been denied because of her peculiar status. This "romance," which opens and closes the show and keeps bobbing up throughout, leaves Siepi and "Carmelina" in the aforementioned soup. Vittorio is about as welcome and unbending a character as the Stone Guest in "Don Giovanni," an opera in which the young Siepi gradually grew to magnificence.
Though Siepi's voice is the richest instrument on stage, Lerner and Lane have written their most commonplace songs for it. The tritest of all, the oft-repeated "It's Time for a Love Song," comes at the very beginning, and the low level of energy is sustained by Vittorio's subsequent "I Must Have Her." The second-act opens with his singing of the routine title number, for which Lane has had the audacity to employ strains of "Come Back to Sorrento" for a verse.
Things first begin to pick up in Act One with Carmelina's "Someone in April," in which she tells her elderly housemaid (adequately acted and nicely sung by Grace Keagy) the story of her wartime liaisons. Brown, a bundle of nerves as opposed to Siepi's phlegmatic character, is excellent in this piece and later in the assertive "I'm a Woman," in which a flamenco rhythm strangely appears.
But it is the three "fathers" - winningly contrasted and skillfully set forth by John Michael King, Howard Ross and Gordon Ramsey - who steal the show, first with a beautifully conceived piece entitled "One More Walk Around the Garden" and then, after seeing the Swiss-schooled Gia, with another trio, "The Image of Me."
In these two numbers, Lerner's lyrics, while adroit enough throughout, are at their most delightful, and Lane's music, which begins to perk up with "Someone in April" and "Yankee Doodles Are Coming to Town," is also at its choicest.
Jose Ferrer has staged "Carmelina" deftly, and Peter Gennaro's dance numbers, though not especially striking, are lively. Oliver Smith's settings, in dusty earth tones, are among his finest, seeming to encompass an entire hillside village. (Ironically, a nighttime balcony scene could be right out of "Don Giovanni.") Donald Brooks has created the many apt costumes, including a lilac array for a brief dream sequence.
Jossie de Guzman as Gia, Marc Jordan as a villager who handles some exposition, Virginia Martin as an American wife, David E. Thomas as a befuddled priest, and Joseph d'Angerio as Gia's awkward village swain are all helpful. Hershy Kay's orchestrations, Feder's lighting, Maurice Levine's vocal arrangements, and Don Jennings' conducting also are deserving of high praise.
"Carmelina," at least as far as Carmelina and Vittorio are concerned, is a musical with its heart in the wrong place.
Before the new musical Carmelina, which opened last night at the St. James Theater is five minutes old, the middle-aged but romantic hero is assuring us musically that: "It's Time for a Love Song." And perhaps it is.
Carmelina, which has music by Burton Lane, lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and a book by Lerner and Joseph Stein, is a resolute attempt to put back the clock on the Broadway musical. The story tries - quite successfully - to hold our interest, the music is unabashedly romantic, it is even set in Southern Italy, and the hero is played by an operatic bass baritone.
Although it is unacknowledged on the program the story line has been loosely based on Melvin Frank's 1968 film Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell, which starred Gina Lollobrigida as an Italian matron with a daughter, Gia, receiving child support from three American former G.I.'s, with whom she had a brief liaison during W.W. II.
Each of them imagines that he, unaware of the other two contestants, is the father of her daughter, and each, unbeknowing to the others, sends a check each month to a Naples bank. To maintain her respectability the lovely Carmelina has declared herself to be the widow of the famous, but fictitious, American war hero, Lieutenant Campbell. His name was taken off a can of soup!
Everything is splendid. Carmelina, still in chaste widow's weeds in 1961, 17 years after her supposed husband's death, has become a pillar of society in the tiny town of San Forino. In the film she discreetly has a lover - in the musical she is frustratedly adored by Vittorio, who owns the local cafe. In turn she, also frustratedly and secretly, loves him.
One terrible day in 1961, the Americans reinvade. The old regiments - with their wives - decide to make a tourist trip to the old scenes of their war. Coming along on the journey are Gia's three fathers. Carmelina is understandably disturbed.
It is a sweet story, and while its resolution is probably predictable, Lerner and Stein are expert enough to get the greatest mileage out of its humor, compassion and honesty. More than with most musicals Carmelina is concerned with life - yes, this could have happened.
The characters are credible. The three potential fathers are decently differentiated, and Carmelina herself and Vittorio, her frustrated would-be lover are excellent. The dialogue is persuasive and witty, and Lane and Lerner have done wonders with a score as Neapolitan as a rich spaghetti sauce.
This is Lane's best score since the great Finian's Rainbow, and the Hershy Kay orchestrations are brilliant. Lerner's lyrics twist in the sunlight of his invention - fantastic. Nowadays only Stephen Sondheim has this gorgeous gift for lyric language.
Jose Ferrer has directed with style, Peter Gennaro's dances are simple and effective, Oliver Smith's settings recreate every small Southern Italian town you ever knew, and Donald Brooks' costumes have elegance and authenticity, which is a difficult match to act. The cast is exceptionally good, particularly vocally.
So what is wrong? Everything is according to formula - the pattern is perfect. Yet I am still giving Carmelina two cheers rather than three. Why? It is just too old-fashioned. It is not exactly a pastiche, it is certainly not a copy, and yet it never, for all its brownie points picked up on the way, has the imprint of an original. It could have been done 10 years ago - and should have been.
Nevertheless give Carmelina a proper chance - see it. It is worth your attention, obviously for the music and lyrics, but also very much for the performance.
Georgia Brown is one of those great theatrical ladies who has so far never had an even break - here she gets it and as Carmelina she shimmers with an off-beat charm and tough beauty. Cesare Siepi's acting is understandably somewhat operatic, but to off-balance that, so is his singing. Not since Ezio Pinza has Broadway heard such a voice in full throttle.
The rest of the cast is admirable, but especially note those three husbands - given a couple of show-stopping trios - John Michael King, Gordon Ramsey and Howard Ross.
Carmelina is a friendly musical that is not going anywhere is hasn't been, and not saying anything it hasn't seen, but it is awe-inspiringly professional, and with its lilt of romantic music and its honest sentiment, could work for the audience. I hope it does.
Cesare Siepi's voice, very big if no larger very supple, quite overmasters the frail musical, "Carmelina." It is a voice in search of something to sing. It is like a mastiff trying to make a meal out of popcorn.
"Carmelina," which opened last night at the St. James Theater, is the work of two distinguished names in the history of the American musical. Alan Jay Lerner wrote the lyrics and collaborated on the book; Burton Lane wrote the music.
Neither one is anywhere near keeping up with himself. "Carmelina" has a few pleasant moments in it, and there is a certain game professionalism to some of the others; but it is a very undernourished piece of work.
The book - Joseph Stein is the co-author along with Mr. Lerner - is as faded as something picked up at a Goodwill sale. It is set in a tiny Neapolitan village sometime in the early 1960's. The inhabitants include a bread-seller, a fruit-seller, a mustached mayor and a shovel-hatted priest; and they all bubble.
The village's most distinguished inhabitant is Signora Carmelina Campbell, self-proclaimed widow of an American war hero who fathered her daughter, Gia. In fact there never was a Campbell. Carmelina was a young and accomodating girl during the war, and Gia's father was one of three American soldiers, each of whom has been sending Carmelina monthly checks for the last 17 years.
Two main things happen in the course of the musical. Vittorio, proprietor of the local cafe, lays siege to Carmelina and eventually wins her. Before he can do so, however, the three putative fathers come over from America on a visit; and complications, as they say, ensue.
The visit of the three Americans, middle-aged now, is the nicest thing in the musical. All three are very well played, by Gordon Ramsey, Howard Ross and John Michael King. Each manages to suggest a distinct and different person, and all three are amusing in their initial obliviousness of the others' claims, and touching in their pride in Gia.
Also, the three have the best song in the show: the fervent, well-constructed "One More Walk Around the Garden."
The rest of Mr. Lane's score ranges from a number of quite uninspiring songs to several that have a measure of appeal, and two or three of familiarity. When Mr. Siepi sings "It's Time for a Love Song," which is pleasant but undistinguished, or the title-song "Carmelina," which is plain undistinguished, he has very little to deal with. His voice is still impressive though rather wooden; and it emphasizes the thinness of the music by making so much of it.
Mr. Lerner's lyrics strain for freshness but don't often find it. When he has Carmelina rhyme "Jehovah" with "I'm starting over" and go on with "I demand the biggest share of all the clover" it sounds like something inspired by a 3 A.M. vigil in a hotel room.
The show has two dance numbers, but neither one is more than conventional; and their performance is routine. The Italian village square designed by Oliver Smith is also routine; it is invaded half a dozen times by Carmelina's living room that trundles on, towing behind it an unruly kitchen. When the living room stops, the kitchen bumps into it.
Mr. Siepi is most agreeable as the cafe proprietor. There is an amusing scene where he stands on a ladder propped against Carmelina's balcony, serenading her. The serenade is periodically interrupted when she has to attend to various complications downstairs; finally Mr. Siepi descends, tucks the ladder under his arm, and stalks away.
Georgia Brown makes quite a good volcanic Italian heroine; although frequently there is more effort than conviction in her playing. Her voice seemed weak and husky on opening night, and when she joined in a duet with Mr. Siepi she was inaudible.
Jossie de Guzman doesn't do much more than keep up with the excessively uninteresting part of Gia, whose role is mainly to quaver and beam. José Ferrer's direction and Peter Gennaro's choreography are about equally tired.
"Carmelina" is at best an exercise in harmlessness, and I suppose it mostly succeeds at it. On the other hand, a vacuum abhors nature.