Review: The Wanderer Dances Through Dion's Darkest Moments
Mike Wartella stars as music icon Dion DiMucci in the world-premiere biomusical at Paper Mill Playhouse.
Of all the performers whose lives have been distilled into biomusicals, the life of Dion DiMucci — or just Dion for those asking — makes one of the more compelling arguments for such a theatrical treatment. How does a kid from the Bronx go from singing the gentle doo-wop harmonies of "I Wonder Why" with the Belmonts to R&B numbers like "Ruby Baby" to the acoustic folk ballad "Abraham, Martin And John"? Dion's discography tells its own story, and now The Wanderer, directed by Kenneth Ferrone in its long-delayed world premiere at Paper Mill Playhouse, does a sometimes wandering but altogether engrossing job filling in the blanks. It also doesn't hurt that The Wanderer makes you feel like dancing from start to finish.
That tireless exuberance is fueled by the phenomenal leading performance by Mike Wartella, who rarely gets a moment off stage. Performing a laundry list of exciting arrangements by Sonny Paladino (who also provides the orchestrations), Wartella manages to pack multitudes into a character that could easily be diluted to a 1950s greaser with a guitar. Insolence, charm, anger, mischief — not to mention a beautiful voice with just enough rasp to suggest a rocker's rugged spirit — if The Wanderer makes that coveted move to Broadway, it seems impossible that Wartella would not go with it.
As for the story, it broadly follows the biomusical formula: An artist with big dreams, a rise to stardom, a fall from grace, and a final atonement with a sweet love story as our prize (the infinitely endearing Christy Altomare, best known as Broadway's Anastasia, plays Dion's eventual wife Susan). There's also a host of of crowd-pleasing dance numbers, wonderfully choreographed by Sarah O'Gleby and performed by a stellar ensemble, and an eye-catching set by Beowulf Boritt, who previously familiarized himself with the sights and sounds of Belmont Avenue during his work for Paper Mill's 2016 production of A Bronx Tale (a show that moved to Broadway in 2018). And we can't forget the signature moment of four humble guys from the neighborhood discovering their sound on a New York City streetcorner (Stephen Cerf, Billy Finn, and Jess LeProtto make a fabulous trio of Belmonts).
Despite the many familiar tropes, book writer Charles Messina deviates from the mean a bit with subtle variations on traditional themes that pay off in their specificity. Rather than another be-careful-what-you-wish-for parable of fame, The Wanderer follows Dion from 1958 to 1968 as he resists the hit-making machine from the start. His father, Pat (Johnny Tammaro), a failed entertainer himself, just wants Dion to sing what sells so he can finally have a nice house with a yard upstate. Dion, meanwhile, would rather listen to Hank Williams albums and play his guitar, the antithesis of his Italian destiny to croon (Joli Tribuzio plays a delightfully wry middleman between father and son as Dion's mother, Frances, a quintessential New York Italian matriarch).
The misspelled acronym "Wealth, Onor, Pleasure, Power" becomes Dion's guiding mantra — an incantation of sorts bestowed by his mysterious consigliere named Johnny, played by Joey McIntyre like a devilish Jiminy Cricket. He encourages Dion to pursue his career on his own terms: On the one hand, an empowering stance for an artist, but on the other, a selfish and isolating impulse fit for an addict. Dion's battle with drugs becomes the dramatic thrust of the musical (don't worry, we're still dancing in our chairs to "Runaround Sue") and the power of addiction inspires some of Messina's bigger creative swings, none of which land a perfect 10 but are appreciated for their boldness nonetheless.
Ferrone effectively teases out some of the darker corners of this story in his direction, but as a musical that hinges on upbeat production numbers and a romance we know is destined for a happy ending, the tone of the show is perpetually imbalanced. Perhaps that's the price you pay for prioritizing glossy shine over dismal realism (Sarah Laux's period costumes are all finely polished, from bad-boy gangster to swooning girl on American Bandstand). I can't say I disapprove the choice, considering the good time I had at The Wanderer, but it does complicate the addition of Dion's earnest lodestar Willie Green (played by the excellent Kingsley Leggs), a musician and recovering addict who guides Dion in a religious awakening. Green's daughter Melody, meanwhile, serves as Susan's confidante (Jasmine Rogers doesn't get much of a character as Melody but does get to show off her stunning voice on the Tom Waits song "San Diego Serenade").
The only character (other than Dion) who brings complexity to this story of recovery is Susan. Altomare, who spends the first half of the show being an appealing sidekick, gets to dramatically evolve from a simple neighborhood sweetheart to the embodiment of addiction's collateral damage (the story suggests that Dion's drug dependency was exacerbated by the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and "The Big Bopper" in a plane crash he was nearly on board for). As we barrel toward a neat resolution, as most jukebox musicals require, the show drifts a bit too much into Twelve Step sermonizing for its own good. If the creative team would just let the music speak for itself, they'd realize their final number, "Abraham, Martin and John," is a ready-made serenity prayer.