In Serrano The Musical, book writer Madeleine Sunshine plucks elements from Edmond Rostand’s iconic romance Cyrano de Bergerac and transposes them into a story set in New York City’s mob-infested Little Italy.
Running somewhere around two and three quarter hours (with intermission), this is an ambitious but uneven effort: perhaps worth a trip for the notable songs and some of the dancing and onstage talent, but badly in need of tidying, trimming and an upgrade on the book.
Title character Serrano (Tim Martin Gleason) is a well-spoken educated underling of mob boss Don Reyo (Peter Van Norden), a patriarchal capo looking to protect his enterprises by marrying his nephew Vinnie (Chad Doreck) to the cultured daughter of an influential judge.
Trouble is, Vinnie, while handsome, is foul-mouthed and dumb, and so unlikely to obtain, let alone hold onto, the lady’s affections. So Don Reyo commissions Serrano to teach the boy some culture and otherwise whip him into shape. Serrano, however, has always loved Rosanna (Suzanne Petrella), the woman in question and the daughter of an old family friend. He’s never declared himself since, like his literary namesake, he’s embarrassed by his outsized nose.
The narrative tracks Serrano’s efforts to comply with the Don’s wishes even as he inwardly battles jealousy and frustration. Meanwhile the Don’s son Nickie (Chad Borden), a performing drag queen who manages his own nightclub, is coping — rather successfully — with his Dad’s homophobic disdain.
Around this core of primary and secondary characters and their conflicts is a bevy of marginal figures: hoods, relatives, club entertainers and even a nun, most of whom get their chance in the musical spotlight. It’s entertaining stuff and ably executed. The songs, with lyrics by Sunshine, set to Robert Tepper’s score, and sometimes accompanied by Peggy Hickey's choreography, are clever, catchy or stirring. After a while, though, (say the two hour mark), there does seems to be too many of them.
More problematic than the plethora of musical numbers is the book, which is overrun with stale jokes and stereotypes. In her element writing lyrics about love or loneliness or longing, Sunshine hasn’t managed anything crisp or original in her comic setups or dialogue.
The untidy aspects of the material — some scenes seem extraneous, others go on too long — are underscored by set designer Stephen Gifford’s pointlessly busy backdrop and Leigh Allen’s random lighting.
Gleason is fine vocally, but the revelation of passionate self-doubt that might make the performance memorable is missing. As the clueless Vinnie, Doreck is initially very funny, but his spot-on turn is unfortunately marred later on by the limitations of the character and some of the ludicrous antics he’s asked to perform. James Tabeek distinguishes himself in several smaller roles.
Directed by Joel Zwick, the ensemble on the whole works hard and delivers the goods. Ultimately it’s Borden who turns in the standout performance: terrifically funny as a golden-garbed whip-brandishing drag queen performing before an audience, he’s also solid in his less splashy rendering of a kind and honest guy.
Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., W. Hlywd.; through March 29. (323) 960-7774, serranothemusical.com.
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