Cutting a lovelorn swath through 1960 Brooklyn in search of his Juliet, Romeo Montague is as charming as ever, with his courtly manner and his embroidered speech so different from the local patois.
He didn’t die at the end of Shakespeare’s play after all; he was merely asleep for 400 years. In “Romeo & Bernadette,” Mark Saltzman’s sweet, spoofy romp of a musical comedy, Romeo (Nikita Burshteyn) awakes in modern fair Verona and spies a young woman who is the very image of his lost sweetheart.
She is not Juliet Capulet but rather Bernadette Penza (Anna Kostakis), a tough-as-nails Italian American vacationing with her parents. He pursues her, she rebuffs him, he threatens to throw himself off a bridge — always so dramatic, our Romeo — and she stops him by agreeing that she is, in fact, Juliet. When she flies home to Brooklyn, and to her thuggish fiancé (Zach Schanne), Romeo follows.
In this fish-out-of-water romantic fantasy, money and passports prove no obstacle to a guy from the 1500s, though some of Romeo’s old troubles pop up in 20th-century guises. His new best friend, Dino (Michael Notardonato), is the son of a mafia don (Michael Marotta) — and all three of them get caught in a clash with another mob boss, Bernadette’s father (Carlos Lopez).
“Again my love suffers in a war between two families!” Romeo laments, but this time he is intent on a happy resolution.
Directed and choreographed by Justin Ross Cohen at Theater 555, and presented by Eric Krebs in association with Amas Musical Theater, this is a first-rate production of a show that could easily teeter on the edge of cheesy. It delights in cartoon mobsters and cares not a whit for hipness — unlike, say, “& Juliet,” the West End jukebox musical that imagines a different fate for Romeo’s beloved, or “Fat Ham,” James Ijames’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Hamlet” reclamation at the Public Theater, both of which have a much higher glamour quotient.
With “music adapted from classic Italian melodies,” as the program credit puts it (many of the tunes are by Francesco Paolo Tosti; music direction is by Aaron Gandy), and witty period costumes (by Joseph Shrope), “Romeo & Bernadette” feels fond, familiar, escapist: theater as merry comfort food. The appeal of that — especially in this time of relentlessly dire headlines — is not to be underestimated.
The one real clunk in the works is the framing device. The musical begins at a Brooklyn Community Players performance of “Romeo and Juliet,” whose corpse-strewn ending leaves an English major (Ari Raskin) in tears and her uncultured date (Notardonato) worried that his chance of scoring with her is doomed. So he spins the tale of “Romeo & Bernadette” as the story of “the real Romeo.” His inventiveness might come off as more plausible, and less mansplainy, if we hadn’t seen him barely paying attention to the play.
Still, inside the story he weaves, Burshteyn makes Romeo an absolute darling, with an ingenuousness that parents swoon over. It is no spoiler to say that Bernadette eventually recognizes him as a gentler version of a man than her violent fiancé will ever be.
The protean Troy Valjean Rucker is a standout in multiple roles, including a florist who delivers a rib-tickling Shakespeare pun. Judy McLane brings depth to the role of Camille, Bernadette’s mother, who yearns for the glory of her distinguished ancestry and, in the show’s most realistic scene, warns her daughter of the danger of committing to mafia life. The fine cast is rounded out by Viet Vo as Lips, the Penzas’ bodyguard.
Street violence, men and boys killing one another — these things are part of “Romeo and Juliet.” But in ancient Verona, knives are the weapons of choice. “Romeo & Bernadette” is not “West Side Story,” with carnage on the stage; there are no deaths, and goodness wins. But there are guns and the sound of gunfire, which is when you may feel brutal reality intrude.
Welcome to America, Romeo.
Romeo & Bernadette: A Musical Tale of Verona & Brooklyn
Through June 26 at Theater 555, Manhattan; romeoandbernadette.com. Running time: 2 hours.