Without question, Prospect Theater Company’s sparkling new musical comedy, Once Upon a Time in New Jersey, tells a familiar story. But the result is a delightfully derivative piece of theater — and one made especially fun by the strong work of its top-notch cast and creative team.
While the show’s opening and closing numbers invoke the Garden State, its Italian-American neighborhood in 1956 recalls Brooklyn more readily than Lodi, New Jersey. And geography is hardly the issue, since the show’s locale is really musical comedy land, a place where song and dance are the prescribed ways of communicating everything from fear to love.
The book by Susan DiLallo is as silly to describe as it is entertainingly realized: A young, nerdish man named Vinnie (David Perlman) is in love with his blonde and sweetly naïve co-worker at the Italian Deli, Angie (Briga Heelan). Not surprisingly, she is infatuated with the local leather-jacketed bad boy, Rocco (Jeremy Cohen) who loves to treat girls like dirt.
When Rocco is caught having a dalliance with a local Mafia wife (Catherine LeFrere) — and a hit man is sent after him by her jealous husband, Billy (Jonathan Gregg) — Rocco convinces Vinnie to be him, using Angie as bait to hook Vinnie into this unlikely masquerade. Vinnie agrees and suddenly he has all the girls in town after him, including Angie.
Naturally, comic complications ensue — not to mention a slew of songs. Fortunately the 1950s pastiche music by Stephen Weiner is both vibrant and provides an excellent launching pad for DiLallo’s clever and often laugh-out-loud funny lyrics.
Cara Reichel’s direction is constantly inventive and fast-paced, and she uses Jen Price Fick’s pricelessly adaptable set to comic perfection, moving her actors around in a constant flow of amusing movement. The show also benefits from Christine O’Grady’s excellent choreography, highlighted by a production number in the second act that seems like something Busby Berkeley might have created had he worked Off-Off Broadway.
The large and talented cast — led by the exceptional Perlman — all get a chance to shine. Rocco’s two loyal pals, well-played by John Mervini and Noah Zachary, conjure a favorable comparison with the two “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” gangsters in Kiss Me Kate LeFrere may remind some of a young Alix Korey, which is quite a compliment. And a three-girl chorus that features Samia Mounts, Darcy Yellin, and Mishaela Faucher deserve kudos.
Despite its gentle borrowing from shows as diverse as Grease, Little Shop of Horrors, and even (for a moment) Les Miserables, Once Upon a Time in New Jersey is a theatrical fairy tale worth listening to (and watching) again and again.