Sunday, September 28, 2008

New Theatre premiere lends operatic heft to autumnal love story

By Paul Horsley

Joe DiPietro’s new play The Last Romance is about things that anyone with a few years under the belt can relate to: love and loss, conflicting demands of spouse versus siblings, fear of old age, illness, death. Much of it reads like somebody’s life.

Moreover DiPietro wrote it specifically for the lead actors who introduced the play at the New Theatre beginning September 4, veterans Marion Ross and Paul Michael, a fact that gives the play an emotional core. To add to the sense of art-imitating-life, Ross and Michael are themselves a late-blooming love-couple in real life, and are the exact ages of their characters, 79 and 82 respectively.

This world-premiere production, which runs through November 9, is sleekly packaged and designed, with bright, unfussy scenery by Beowulf Boritt, and capably directed by Richard Carrothers. It features canny performances by Ross and Michael, who hope to take the play to New York eventually. If its pacing is a tad sluggish, and if DiPietro’s humor tends toward the sitcom-ish, the play has a nice dramatic structure and some not-entirely-predictable surprises. (I attended Sunday afternoon, September 28.)

Ralph Bellini (Michael) is an aptly named former singer who lives with his clinging sister, Rose (Marie Lillo) in Hoboken. One day he strays from his walk routine and comes upon a dog park, where he grows enamored of an aging beauty (Ross, best known as a star of TV’s “Happy Days”) he spies walking her Chihuahua.

Thus begins a romance that strains credulity at the outset but grows more poignant as the actors kick their timing into gear. DiPietro’s language is plain and conversational: At times you wish for more poetry. Some of the humor is aimed unabashedly at seniors (not that there’s anything wrong with that): “My brother’s quite a catch,” Rose says to Carol. “He can still drive at night.”

But the performances carry the drama for the most part. Ross is lively and convincing in the way she moves from faux-indignation at Michael’s flirting to vulnerability. Lillo lays on the loud-and-brassy-Joisey-girl a bit thick, but when she reads the 20-year-old letter from her estranged husband, her misery seems real.

Opera itself is a sort of “character” in the play, partly through the presence of a figure called The Young Man who represents Ralph as an aspiring 20something singer. Sweet-voiced baritone Joshua Jeremiah makes brief entrances to sing snatches of operatic arias, including the piece Ralph sang at his Metropolitan Opera audition 60 years before,
E allor perchè” from I Pagliacci.

Opera plays a deeper role in the drama, too, representing an idealized world free of life’s ugliness in which only love matters. Opera’s larger-than-life quality is what Ralph and Carol yearn for. Opera is “big emotion, big people,” Ralph says. “That music makes them bigger than they are.” The problem with opera is that “all the lovers want to do is be in love,” he says later. “But it ain’t that simple. Something always gets in the way.” Indeed, the mystery surrounding Ralph’s failed opera career propels the drama forward in interesting enough ways that I found myself wishing DiPietro had made more of it, perhaps even (if you’ll pardon my musical bias) allowing the singer more stage time to sing more opera.

On the other hand I applaud the author for avoiding the too-obvious choice of making Ralph a tenor, which in my mind would have seemed out-of-kilter with his character’s grounded world-view. The tenor in opera tends to be the brash, hot-headed lover willing to sacrifice all for romance. The baritone is the trusted friend, the dad, the family man, the ordinary guy trying to make a living. That’s who Ralph is.

The Last Romance runs through November 9 at the New Theatre, 9229 Foster in Overland Park. For tickets call 913-649-7469 or go to

To reach Paul Horsley, send email to