Letter from New York: “Romeo & Bernadette”

Nikita Burshteyn and Anna Kostakis (Photo: Russ Rowland) Nikita Burshteyn and Anna Kostakis (Photo: Russ Rowland)

There is no earthly reason to write about the new off-Broadway musical Romeo & Bernadette except that it’s very clever. Mark Saltzman has repurposed some 300 hundred years of Italian song—Giordani through de Curtis with side trips via Rossini, Bellini, Leoncavallo, Cannio and Falvo—as songs and lyrics of a thoroughly modern (albeit 1960s-retro) musical.

Romeo didn’t die after all, it seems, but slept for 500 years. He wakes and meets Juliet, or rather Juliet reincarnated as Bernadette, the smart-aleck daughter of Brooklyn mob boss Sal Penza, on a family trip to her mother’s hometown of Verona. He follows her back to Brooklyn, and gets tangled up in a fight between two organized crime families. It’s all very silly (but funny), filled with one-liners about Shakespeare, language, sexual innuendo and gangsters. Some semblance of verisimilitude is maintained by using the old Shakespeare trick of setting this as a story within a play: a guy trying to make it with an English major by taking her to see the play. She brushes him off, so he tells her that “there’s more”.

The result is a sort of Kiss Me Kate meets West Side Story meets Jersey Boys.


But what differentiates Romeo & Bernadette is that Saltzman has taken Italian canzone—some reasonably well-known to those who attend recitals, some probably less so even to those that do—and recast them in what sounds like a c. 1960 Italian pop style (“Volare” has a brief cameo). These are not mere transcriptions, arrangements or translations, yet nor are they rewrites: Giuseppe Giordani’s “Caro mio ben” becomes a haunting love duet; Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Mattinata” becomes a perky ensemble piece “There’s Moonlight Over Brooklyn”. Gioachino Rossini’s “Tarantella” makes an appearance, as do pieces by Paolo Tosti and Neapolitan song writers GB de Curtis, Enrico Cannio and Rodolfo Favio (albeit not in all cases their best-known ones).

There are a couple of jokes for the cognoscenti: Camille Penza says she likes cooking clam sauce to Puccini, but she’s playing Giordani on the record-player. And Tuscan Don Del Canto (yes, funny), the other mob boss who hails from Cortona and adopts the awakened Romeo (Montagues and Capulets, you see), sings from O sole mio in full-on napolitano.


The production is minimalist and better for it. Although Romeo and Bernadette have top billing, the musical numbers are in fact doled out to multiple principals: everyone has a go under the spotlight and all do it well. This is a work that requires an ensemble cast (almost every number that starts off as a solo ends up as a duet, trio or with the entire cast) and gets it. Nevertheless, the show’s wise-cracking Bernadette, Anna Kostakis, lights up the (small) stage every time she enters.

In this new ending to Romeo and Juliet, no one dies—which means gets the narrator the girl. When he says that he’ll next relate what really happened to Hamlet, one hopes he means it.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.