Famous arias from operas by Puccini, Verdi, and Mozart at the Circle Bar B Theatre? This would seem unlikely, until you have experienced the West Coast premiere of Tony & the Soprano. Its catchy title implies no real connection to the HBO show, but rather names the principal figures in this romantic musical comedy. Sprinkled with just the right dose of realism, Tony & the Soprano‘s 14 musical numbers are artfully interwoven into a story of love and transformation.
Set in contemporary Brooklyn, amid the shops of a small neighborhood, the play opens with the dilemma of Rose, a colorful Italian-American, whose 35-year-old son Tony still lives at home. Leslie Ann Story is superbly cast in the role of an exasperated, anxious mother who concludes, “St. Peter will just have to wait for me” until Tony finds his own place. A car mechanic, whom everyone describes as a “great guy,” Tony (Max Avila) is stuck in life, and a bit awkward with women. Enter Francis (Stephanie Sivers), a recent transplant from a Milwaukee farm who has come to study opera at Julliard, and these previously stagnant lives begin to change. Citing Francis of Assisi, Rose assumes Francis is a male tenant and senses trouble when instead a striking redhead appears at her door. “Two unmarried people living in the same building?!” she muses. Although overprotective of Tony, Rose nurtures a grateful Carol, a latchkey tomboy who dreams of fixing engines with Tony. Fresh from her Dos Pueblos High School performance as the lead in Annie, Nanda Douglas successfully combines a sense of humor with vulnerability, especially in “The Mother Song.”
The whole seven-member cast sings, and the actors have great synergy. Kristi Brown as Isabel and Sivers as Francis complement each other well in the delightful dance/musical number “The Girls Duet,” as well as in the menage trois scene including Vinnie (Adam Martinez) in Vinnie’s Little Venice. As Carmine, David Couch drew roars of laughter, and among the show’s many dramatic surprises and exciting plot twists, Carmine’s mobster persona melting to Francis’s beautiful singing of Puccini’s “O Mio Bambino Caro” was perhaps the most memorable.
Sivers is the show’s star singer per excellence. Her rich voice has a range of four octaves. Kudos should go to Joseph Beck for helping to bring this original musical from Ithaca, New York, and for directing another fine, unique play at the Circle Bar B Theatre.