San Francisco Theater Preview: CARMELINA (42nd Street Moon)

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by Tony Frankel on November 3, 2012

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


I hope San Franciscans actually know how advantaged they are to have a company like 42nd Street Moon, which presents fully staged productions of rarely-seen musicals. While I am grateful for Musical Theatre Guild’s concert-style, one-time only productions in Los Angeles, rare is the theater company willing to dust off an Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema preview of 42nd Street Moon’s CARMELINA in San Franciscoold American Musical—hit or flop—and present a full-on production.

And don’t interpret “full-on” as a 23-piece orchestra and big-budget scenery; 42nd Street Moon wisely invests their time into the talent and interpretation of musicals such as Sugar and Zorba, not throwing their money away on unnecessary trappings. I say “wisely” because Reprise Theatre Company in Los Angeles went from producing unseen gems in low-budgeted productions to behemoths of well-known shows, such as last year’s Kiss Me, Kate and Cabaret. Both were terrific, but guess what? After fifteen years, Reprise, under Artistic Director Jason Alexander, cancelled the 2011-2012 season, and no one knows if they’ll ever return, which is a shame because all you need is talent and a musical which rarely sees the light of a follow spot, not harnesses, turntables, and rock-concert lighting.

And here’s your chance. Opening this weekend, 42nd Street Moon presents a lost Lerner and Lane musical named Carmelina, which only plays through November 18, 2012 at the Eureka Theatre. The musical is one of those neglected gems that came along at the wrong time with the wrong guidance, and closed after just seventeen performances. This musical comedy—which has only been revived for two concert presentations in Manhattan—has never been seen outside New York since its initial run, marking this as both its first post-Broadway full production and its West Coast premiere. 42nd Street Moon Artistic Director Greg MacKellan directs, with Dave Dobrusky as Musical Director.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema preview of 42nd Street Moon’s CARMELINA in San FranciscoWhen I first heard the original cast recording of Carmelina, which is available remastered on CD, I couldn’t believe it opened on Broadway in 1979, just five weeks after Sweeney Todd. Decidedly old-fashioned, unashamedly romantic, and gloriously sentimental, the musical—presumably based on the 1968 Sophia Loren movie called Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell—sounds like it’s trying to turn the clock back on the Broadway musical one to three decades, depending on the song. And no wonder. The composer is Burton Lane, who found his greatest success with his first hit show Finian’s Rainbow, which opened in 1947 (lyricist: E. Y. Harburg), and Carmelina‘s lyricist is Alan Jay Lerner, whose first hit show with Frederick Loewe, Brigadoon, opened just two months later (although Lerner is assuredly better-known for that little hit called My Fair Lady (1956), which recently had a charming revival at the SF Playhouse).

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema preview of 42nd Street Moon’s CARMELINA in San FranciscoBoth Finian and Brigadoon were recognized by critics as triumphantly trouncing the hackneyed tunes of Tin Pan Alley—a path already blazed by Oklahoma! (1943), On the Town (1944), and Carousel (1945), but Carmelina, surrounded in 1979 by Evita, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and They’re Playing Our Song, was neither a crowd-pleasing candy-corn burlesque like Sugar Babies (which also opened in 1979) nor a trail-blazing nonpareil like Sweeney Todd. As evidenced on the recording with Georgia Brown and Paul Sorvino (replacing opera star Cesare Siepe), Carmelina is neither a pastiche nor a reproduction of the old-fashioned musical of the 40’s, and it definitely is not something I would claim to be original. But Lerner and Lane are no slouches, and the two had previously created some amazing tunes for both the 1951 Fred Astaire hit pic Royal Wedding (which includes the standard “Too Late Now”) and a lushly melodic score for the 1965 wrongheaded On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, which has yet to find its footing as a musical, film, or revival.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema preview of 42nd Street Moon’s CARMELINA in San FranciscoThere is something striking about the score of Carmelina: some of Lerner’s lyrics are so amazing that you can definitely notice the stamp of the man who gave musical life to Henry Higgins. Clive Barnes of The Post said that Lerner’s lyrics “twist in the sunlight of his invention,” adding that the music is “Lane’s best score since Finian’s Rainbow.” While I agree that the score has genuine magnificence, some of it seems a bit undernourished. Still, it’s too good a score to lie forgotten, as the boys produced some great tunes, including the deeply touching tear-jerking standard “Just One More Walk Around the Garden” and the romantic “It’s Time for a Love Song.” Mr. Barnes also notated: “Together, Lane and Lerner have done wonders with a score as Neapolitan as a rich spaghetti sauce.”


Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema preview of 42nd Street Moon’s CARMELINA in San FranciscoThe story concerns Carmelina Campbell (who is played by Caroline Altman), an Italian woman posing as a “widow” of a non-existent soldier. The year is 1962, and three WWII American GI’s (Will Springhorn Jr., Trevor Faust Marcom, and Rudy Guerrero) return to Italy for a regimental reunion. Having been romantically involved with each, Carmelina knows that one of them is the father of her teenage daughter Gia (Emily Morris), but she’s not sure which. Soon, the men discover after twenty years that they’ve been paying child support for the same bambina. And that’s all you need to know. Other cast members include Darlene Popovic as Carmelina’s trusted maid, Bill Farhner as the love struck café owner pursuing Carmelina, with Stewart Kramar, Michael Doppe, Bill Olson, and Janine Burgener rounding out the ensemble.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema preview of 42nd Street Moon’s CARMELINA in San FranciscoLerner insisted that his work was original and based on a newspaper article. But popular wisdom contends that it is based on Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell. Either way, since the story no doubt may sound familiar to you, it is definitely this movie which inspired the hit jukebox  musical, Mamma Mia! Lerner was a notoriously lazy writer, which may explain why Fiddler on the Roof’s Joseph Stein co-authored the book, which critics called everything from “persuasive and witty” to “game professionalism” to “faded as something picked up at a Goodwill sale.” Those reviews alone are one reason why any lover of musical comedy must see Carmelina.

photos by David Allen

42nd Street Moon at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson Street
opens November 3; scheduled to end on November 18, 2012
for tickets, call (415) 255-8207 or visit

{ 1 comment }

Robert Low November 9, 2012 at 2:17 pm

This is one of the best productions I’ve seen at 42 nd Street Moon.
The voices are super, and the second act is some of the most gleeful and clever
theatre I’ve seen in a very long time. If you are a Broadway musical fan,
don’t miss it! Bob Low

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