Adapted from the Canadian independent film of the same name, writers Jean Cheever (Toxic Avenger, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, All Shook Up) and Tom Polum (Toxic Avenger, Finding Frida Kahlo, Cyrano The Musical) set the new musical Mambo Italiano in Hammonton, New Jersey, with its large Italian-American population. Along with lyricist Omri Schein and composer James Olmstead (the team behind the award-winning musical Gary Goldfarb, Master Escapist), Cheever and Polum bring to life the humor, warmth, and resilience of a multi-generational Italian-American family in a sprite working-class neighborhood.
Two grandparents, Maria, and Gino Barbieri, played by Joy Hermalyn and Bill Nolte, leave their small Italian town to come to New Jersey to raise their two grandchildren and open Famiglia Italiana, their humble restaurant that becomes the center of their economic survival and family life. Hermalyn and Nolte masterfully display their operatic talents. Hermalyn’s chiaroscuro is exquisite, and Nolte’s Italian pronunciation in song and dialogue poignantly portray the heart of an old-world Italian who strives in his new country. Throughout the production, they build chemistry and dynamism with each other – mostly by bickering — that recalls the deep and abiding love of a happily married, elderly couple.
Maria and Gino Barbieri are consistently foiled by their two grandchildren, played by Alexandra Frost and Alex Drost, who set out to lead their own lives – and make their own decisions about love, work, and marriage – apart from the comforts and confines of their grandparents’ home. Frost dazzles the audience with her elegant soprano and powerful belt, as she whips through the show’s hybrid score of songs reminiscent of classical arias and contemporary Broadway. Likewise, Drost endears himself to viewers with his precise musicality, charming tenor voice, and outstanding dance technique.
The Barbieri grandchildren are in turn foiled by the star-crossed couple Donna and Nino, played by Natalie Gallo and Zach Schanne. Donna and Nino unintentionally force Anna and Angelo Barbieri to examine some hard truths about their young lives, ultimately requiring the Barbieri grandparents to reassess their own cultural expectations about family harmony. Schanne alternately amuses and moves the audience with his flirty, comedic acting and boyish good looks, countered by touching moments of vulnerability. Gallo is a sparkling highlight of the show; in her number the “Lunetti Code” she grabs the audience with her vocal gusto, dark humor, and riveting jazz dance style.
The show’s supporting actors and ensemble were a cast of multi-generational actors who brought energy, sharp wit, and musical skills to the stage. Kudos to Adinah Alexander and Diana DiMarzo who used their vocal talents, dramatic timing, and wry humor to play a meddlesome neighbor and a terrible future mother-in-law, and who kept the audience laughing. Though there were moments when the show’s enthusiastic choreography could have been cleaner, the entire cast brought joy and thoughtfulness to the story with their excellent delivery of subtle humor and plays on words. Furthermore, their stellar blend and harmony in every musical number created a richness around the story of this Italian family that brought us to our feet at the end of the night. Mambo Italiano is a heart-warming production that, through the talents of the writers and players, exemplifies the determination and love that has been a hallmark of Italian-American families throughout the 20th century and still today. Bravo!!