Theater Review: Arlene Violet’s Mob Musical, The Family
Monday, June 06, 2011
How to reconcile this seeming paradox in any piece of theater, much less the American musical?
No one is braver nor more up for the challenge than Arlene Violet, whose gutsy, full-blown musical with big numbers and big drama, opened this weekend for a one-month run at Trinity Rep.
The Family, with book by Violet, lyrics and music by Enrico Garzilli, and directed by Peter Sampieri, draws on Violet's intimate knowledge of how mobsters move and work, particularly in her home state of Rhode Island, where the show takes place. Patrick Lynch's simple but evocative set maximizes home-town advantage with a mural of prominent RI landmarks that light up to help set the scene (from mob headquarters Coin-O-Matic to TF Green).
Putting a bounce in the step of omerta
The show gets off to an infectious start with "Family Values," a song that puts a menacing bounce into omerta. The large cast, done up in garish 1970s polyester, surrounds Tom Gleadow as Don Marco, our Tony Soprano (or really Raymond Patriarca). Gleadow's big, round baritone holds its own, and the singing throughout the cast is strong.
But in comes the drama. The central plot involves Don Marco's son, Renaldo, who wants nothing to do with the family business (he's an opera singer), and whose homosexuality (he's lived with the same man for four years) is the at-first-unspoken betrayal that Don Marco labors to avoid, then eliminate. Eliminate as in take out the trash.
But it's not the sharpest dialogue that keeps the plot moving, neither in the father-son scenes nor the lovers' scenes. If the theme is modern, the dialogue needs to keep pace. The expressions of love, fealty, and denial strike notes much closer to a 1940s musical, where all the love was between boys and girls. And may have taken place in Hallmark cards.
Bring on the dancers
But when the dancers take over again, it's genuinely good fun on stage. The Family has two delightful numbers in the second act, both of which involve the charming Jim Sloan as the Capo turning state's evidence. "I'm Minnesota Fats" takes place at the old TF Green, complete with gogo-booted stewardesses tap dancing on top of suitcases. "How Hard Can It Be" asks the question with regards to hiding a 300-pound "canary" (Sloan again). It turns a cat-and-mouse among wiseguys into a Vegas revue, as Sloan prances and hides among yellow-feather-fan showgirls. It's a hoot, and Sloan brings both a little John Candy and Chris Farley to the table. He's hilarious. It's a winner.
But ultimately, the show needs to belong to the Don, as any mob story rests on its Brando, its Pacino, its Gandolfino. Gleadow works hard; he is a strong singer and brings the sag of diminishing power and lost family to his final scenes. But he lacks the lurking danger, the monster just below the beneficent donor, that would take Don Marco to the front of the stage, and it has both to do with the writing and the performance.
What the role needs is stronger, sharper writing for Don Marco's crucial scenes with Renaldo, and perhaps an actor who conveys menace more ably. Will this fix the opening challenge of creating a Mafia musical in a post-Soprano's world? Perhaps not, but it will give us a Don who stands up to the showgirls and dancing henchmen around him. And that's the least we can do for the Family.
The Family, at Trinity Rep, through July 1 at the Lederer Theater Center, 201 Washington St., Providence. The show is renting the theater; it is not a Trinity Rep production. Tickets are $60. Call 351-4242, or log on to www.trinityrep.com.