LEWISTON -- Somewhere between bittersweet and sugar-coated, The Public Theatre's current production of "The Last Romance" serves up a heartwarming look at love late in life.
Growing old can throw a lot of curves into life, and this new play by Joe DiPietro finds plenty of humor to season the challenges confronting three characters on different paths through aging.
The opening night audience gave a well-deserved standing ovation to the show's cast. The play taps a full range of overwhelming emotion that's kept in check by director Janet Mitchko's emphasis on strength of commitments rather than unbridled passion.
Ralph Bellini, a widower who lives in a Hoboken, N.J., with his sister, meets an attractive lady and her Chihuahua at a neighborhood dog park. Ralph, played by PJ Benjamin, strikes up a conversation with the lady, played by Louisa Flaningam. Benjamin and Flaningam, husband and wife with extensive Broadway credits, are wonderfully matched for these roles.
Andrea Gallo plays Ralph's sister, Rose. She is a demanding but protective woman, and Ralph's attraction to someone new in his life is an obvious threat to her. Each of these characters has a distinct personality that propels their life in different ways through essentially the same fears of growing old alone.
Ralph is "a kidder," and it's his defense against rejection. He's not the least shy, and his first words to Carol, the nicely dressed lady in the dog park, are, "Do you like opera?" He knows it will catch her off balance, and he figures it's a perfect opener for getting acquainted, but her answer is a quick and simple, "No." From this point, the importance of opera enters the plot as the audience learns that Ralph once auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera Company, but through a missed phone call, his dream was never realized.
There's a fourth character in the play. It's a young man who appears for a series of operatic arias as the story unfolds, it soon becomes apparent that he is Ralph's younger self, and he is portraying Ralph's lost ambitions in the theater of his mind.
Jason Phillips, a talented vocalist trained in classical technique, sings the on-stage operatic pieces. They blend beautifully with the stage action, linking the older Ralph with his youthful dream. There is a brief duet sung by Phillips and Benjamin, "Torna a Surriento," a well-known Neopolitan song, that also showcases the vocal skills of the older man.
Ralph learns the background of the lady in reluctantly released pieces. He learns that her husband suffered an incapacitating stroke. Ralph's wife had died suddenly several years earlier. Rose's husband had deserted her 22 years earlier, yet she still refused to grant him a divorce, and she had become Ralph's loud and persistent protector.
"The Last Romance" follows these three as they cope with realities and yearn for changes. Carol warms to Ralph's attentions, and they are nearly set to fly to La Scala Opera House in Italy when new information disrupts the plan.
There's a comfortable predictability to this production of "The Last Romance." The bittersweet climax comes with honesty rather than heartbreak.
Benjamin's credits include five years as the Wizard of Oz in the hit musical "Wicked," and six years as Mr. Cellophane in "Chicago."
Flaningam has appeared in many Broadway plays and musicals, and she was in TPT's production of "Southern Comforts." Gallo's theatrical career is also extensive with appearances throughout the country and in TPT's productions of "Over the River and Through the Woods," which is also a DiPietro play, and in "The Language Archive."
The set design by Judy Staicer is simple but extremely effective. The stage is dominated by large tree trunks at the dog park, but they also appear to be columns on an opera stage.
Remaining performances of "The Last Romance" are at 7:30 p.m., Thursday and Friday, May 9-10, and at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 11, with an additional 2 p.m., matinee on Saturday, and a final matinee on 2 p.m. Sunday, May 12.
The annual TCP silent auction is also taking place in the lobby. The Public Theatre is at Maple and Lisbon Streets. For tickets, call 782-3200 or go online to www.thepublictheatre.org.
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