nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
May 26, 2009
There is something extraordinary about traveling to another country and seeing yourself through native eyes—that is, if you are Aja Nisenson, singer, playwright, and one-woman soloist in Piccola Cosi. In her show, Nisenson relates a familiar yet touchingly personal seduction of an American girl in Italy, who comes to recognize the talent that her teachers molded and the beauty that her Italian suitors say they see in her. It is a coming-of-age story that Nisenson says she could not have pulled off in the United States.
Every year hundreds of students travel abroad for a semester of learning and playing. Nisenson paints her eight-month experience in Bologna with both broad and quick strokes. The show skips the semester of classes at the university, and jumps to the extended summer stay when she successfully passes herself off as an American jazz singer despite not knowing the words to any of the jazz standards. Nisenson's warm autobiographical story is populated with a long line of men, who, to her surprise, find her sexy. She hams up her encounters with a bevy of them. But Piccola Cosi is at its best when Nisenson sings. She arrives in Bologna with a classically-trained voice. Once she leaves, she knows what to do with it. Piccola Cosi is best at showing that journey.
Nisenson begins by singing "My Funny Valentine," confirming her vocal chops. Then we see her first audition. Dressed in a black camisole and pants and sneakers approved by her podiatrist father, she floods her song with the many funny, insecure thoughts that occur to her while she is singing. As Nisenson's performance progresses and the attention of the Italian admirers in her story multiply, these inner thoughts fade and her confidence builds. Backed by a neat combo comprising Brian Dilg at keyboard, Joe Nagle on the drums, and Pete O'Connell on bass, we see Nisenson's "aha" moment when she realizes that jazz is more than knowing the words to a song. It is an integration of rhythms, postures, and improvisations. She delivers "Blue Moon" with rakish command and sophistication, substituting the standard lyrics with those from her grocery list. It works beautifully.
Directed by Dilg, Nisenson is agile and energetic as she portrays the various men, primarily as overconfident, yet unappealing lotharios—recognizable caricatures. She speaks in Italian, broken English, broken Italian, and English, which adds texture and humor. There are, however, a few distracting elements in the show that add little to Nisenson's story: a near-strip tease, pulling pasta and basil from her bra, and personal photos of her trip projected on a screen. Also, Nisenson carries what I think is an amp gizmo in her back pocket that keeps falling out. Despite these shortcomings, Piccola Cosi presents a familiar, yet warm coming-of-age story that resonates primarily because Nisenson accepts and integrates during her stay in Italy what is so obvious to others—that she is an attractive young woman with talent, who has a promising future ahead of her.