October and November are jammed with openings, as many as seven in one week. To find reviews of all the current productions, click on the “Reviews” tab in white letters in the teal bar in the upper left-hand corner.
By Michelle F. Solomon
Ralph Bellini is one of those Renaissance guys – he lives in the language of love. For him, life is an opera. His ideal romance? “In the opera, lovers not only want to be in love, but want to be in love with life.” That’s his way of navigating the universe.
Broward Stage Door Theatre has mounted a warmly delightful production of Joe Di Pietro’s four-person (and one dog) play, The Last Romance, a bittersweet story about love, loss and loneliness and how the twilight years hold out that last hope for the shimmer, twinkle and spark of love’s first bliss.
But blooming love at 80 or so offers some questions perhaps not pondered in younger relationships: “What if I develop feelings for you and you die?”
Veteran director Arthur Whitelaw has assembled a cast who embrace Di Pietro’s quick-witted, yet deeply sensitive golden-years love story. Larry Kent Bramble as Ralph couldn’t be more perfectly cast. As the former retired railroad worker who dreamed of being a Metropolitan Opera star, Bramble’s Ralph is teddy-bear sweet.
He’s still in love with his deceased wife, Anna, yet puts on his best Banana Republic shirt after spying seventy-something Carol (Phyllis Spear) in a dog park. He doesn’t have a dog, but parks himself on a bench the next day hoping to strike up a conversation with her. He does: “Do you like opera?” he asks.
Bramble delivers Ralph’s sweet stories with a boyish charm and when his sister tells Carol that he’s “a good catch… he can still drive at night,” you believe it — this Ralph would be a good catch, night driver or not.
While Carol declines his advances at first, the audience learns that she’s harboring her own secrets – is she still married? Has her husband passed on? Meanwhile, there’s more than that obstacle in Ralph’s way. He has to contend with his domineering sister, Rose (Sally Bondi), who interrupts his chances with Carol, stomping into the park to announce which of Ralph’s favorite recipes is waiting at home on the table. “You’ve got 20 minutes, Ralph,” she barks.
Rose hangs on to Ralph like a security blanket, conveying her fears that when he’s out of her sight he may be stricken ill between the house and the park and never return. Behind her controlling persona, she’s lonely and bitter, we soon discover.
A frequent performer in South Florida theater, Bondi really gets to show her depth as Rose. A second-act scene between Rose and Ralph is a highlight and ends up being the climax of the play — her character arc — as she lets loose a torrent of emotion in a desperate attempt to keep her brother from leaving her. The nuance she suggests brings to light for the audience Rose’s real motives: that the desperation isn’t so much a deep love for her brother, but driven by her own fears of being alone. In that same act, when Rose reads a letter from her husband who deserted her 22 years ago, Bondi’s delivery is fresh and unrehearsed.
Spear adds the requisite cold and aloofness called for as the playwright has imagined Carol, but there’s a lack of warmth when she begins to reciprocate the attraction Ralph has for her. Spear keeps Carol buttoned up (even though in the second act she’s supposed to be a bit unbuttoned after a garden make-out session with Ralph) throughout, almost until the very end when Carol makes her own personal reveal.
A glimpse into Ralph’s past who appears to sing snippets of operas, James Parks’ beautiful voice and presence as the Young Man casts a dreamlike mist into the goings on. Parks never overpowers, but remains ethereal in his short renditions of operas (he sings Mozart and Verdi) and an Italian folk song. He shines the most after the recounting of Ralph’s tryout at the Met singing Silvio’s aria from “Pagliacci,” which garnered applause from the audience.
Whitelaw’s direction helps establish realistic characters in a slice of life situation, which this present-day play depends upon. He makes use of wonderful moments, including a verbal to and fro between the young Ralph and the older Ralph as they describe their tryout at the Met. It’s beautifully played and directed.
Real-life Shorkie, Chloe Ann Mumper makes an appearance as dog, Peaches, late in the second act. Although Peaches is described early on in the play as a Chihuahua mix that “looks like a rat who can bark,” Chloe Ann is anything but.
Michael McClain’s fall-inspired set rings true to a dog park (it even has a clean up after your pet sign hung stage left). The lighting by Ardean Landhuis keeps the orange and amber hues aglow. Technical director Kyle Minnick keeps the dog barks happening on cue, adding to the overall atmosphere.
The Last Romance was actually inspired by real life couple Marion Ross and Paul Michael, Ross’ boyfriend for more than 22 years. You remember Marion Ross, right? Mrs. C on Happy Days and Sally Fields’ mom on Brothers and Sisters? Michael was an actor, too, although maybe not as well known. (He died in 2011, but was well known for touring as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof and in a number of Broadway shows.) When DiPietro (author of the popular I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change) saw the two perform together in one of his other plays, he was inspired to write a play about the couple which resulted in The Last Romance. Ross loved dogs; Michael loved opera. The pair played Ralph and Carol in numerous stage performances in the U.S.
The Last Romance is pleasant enough, a nice evening stroll perfect for a cool fall night.
The Last Romance”runs through Nov. 23 at The Broward Stage Door Theatre, 8036 Sample Road, Coral Springs. Tickets are $38 – $42; $16 student tickets are also available. The show’s running time is about 1 hour and 50 minutes with a 15 minute intermission. Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at (954) 344-7765 or visit www.stagedoorfl.org.
To see promotional videos, click to http://vimeo.com/108590477 and http://vimeo.com/108657539