Obama in Naples
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 26, 2012
The idea behind Obama in Naples is intriguing: a modern-day Pulcinella (the crafty meddler from classic commedia dell'arte) plants a rumor that President Obama is planning to visit Naples, presumably to rejuvenate the city with his message of "yes we can" optimism. At the same time, a middle-aged Italian-American journalist returns to Naples and finds himself wishing to make amends to the city he feels he abandoned and betrayed when he hastily departed decades before in search of better opportunities abroad.
Playwright Claudio Angelini's comedy with songs is billed as a "love poem to Naples," but in this incarnation at the June Havoc Theatre it is only fitfully successful, at least to these American ears and eyes. I suspect that some of the play's charm and tone has been lost in Angela Carabelli's translation, which is not as funny or vivid as I imagine the original play probably is; the lyrics, in particular, lack the poetry one would hope for and make the songs feel almost Brechtian in their directness. But I think that beyond literal translation it's hard for the play's Italian attitude to make itself fully understood to Americans: we love black and white while this play dances through all kinds of shades of grey—for example, the journalist's romantic interest in the play is a married French woman who seems to have no intention of ever leaving her husband, which is not the kind of couple we are used to rooting for in a musical comedy.
Angelini's plot exposes a Naples full of corruption, faded glory, and impoverished spirits, but dances lightly around these topics for most of its first act as we are introduced to a mini-skirted nun named Concetta and a lazy mayor, Gennarino, who is certainly on the take, parading through the streets in a Hawaiian shirt, Bermuda shorts, and sandals. In the second act, the story takes a more serious turn when we meet Concetta's nephew Lorenzo, a promising young scientist who is thwarted by a stupid educational bureaucracy when he tries to conduct his research and then gets heavily into debt with the Mafia.
Obama does turn up near the end as a sort of deus-ex-machina, but it's clear that the notion that he will be any more of a savior to Naples than any other politician is rather gleefully debunked. The play ends on a note that blends cynicism with romance quite cheerfully.
The songs, mostly composed by the author, include a paean to Naples called "A City" that is repeated throughout the show by various characters, and a fun ditty called "Obama Ballad" that is performed by three young women who seem enamored of the American president. This number is the only one that includes any choreography (rock 'n' roll dance moves, some executed by Obama himself) and that energy makes it notable—I really would have liked to see more movement and dance elsewhere in the show.
Brian Childers, who has been starring off-Broadway in the long-running Danny and Sylvia, stars as the Italian American journalist Paolo. He has presence and talent to spare, but he seems too young for the role and the play doesn't maintain sufficient focus on his character to let us really care about him. The other standout performance in this company is Lin Tucci's lively, funny, crowd-pleasing turn as the nun, Concetta.
The show is directed by Stephan Morrow on a simple unit set that is framed by three paintings by scenographer Lello Esposito, the most striking of which depicts a volcano (Vesuvius?) erupting streams of brilliant varied colors.