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A CurtainUp Review

Cafe Puttanesca
By Kathryn Osenlund

Cafe Puttanesca
Clockwise from left: Tracie Higgins, Jilline Ringle, Mary Martello, Tony Braithwaite
(Photo: Mark Garvin )
Michael Ogborn is a multi-talented composer and lyricist. What does he do for an encore after a big musical like Baby Case? The answer is to go intimate with Cafe Puttanesca, currently having its world premiere on the Arden Theater's Arcadia Stage.

The musical is set in late forties Amsterdam, where prostitution is legal. Three hookers are after-hours regulars at a cozy cafe, where they join the simpatico owner to perform a carefully crafted impromptu cabaret. The show is replete with beaucoup limericks, bawdy dances, maudlin moments, petty squabbles, and a wealth of intricate and engaging songs about love and loss, whores, models, and artists of Paris, Rasputin, and even a frying pan.

"Off color" would be a tame way to characterize the show's language. These old bawds and the cafe owner can hold their own against anyone, with their x-rated jokes and gestures. The crazy thing is they make the material so warm and fuzzy you could bring your mother.

The whores with elegant names, The Marquesa (Jilline Ringle), The Duchess (Tracie Higgins), and The Baroness (Mary Martello) are all spirited singers, lively, and entertaining. I could not single one out for raves, because they all deserve them. The owner (Tony Braithwaite) is a fine entertainer, and the cook (Elisa Matthews) also sings and throws an excellent tantrum. Vince DiMura plays killer piano behind the entire show and accompanies each song, with no reference to notes and with a beautiful touch on the keys.

Snippets of talk provide insights into the characters' lives. It turns out this is to be the last after-work gathering for the Baroness, a German dominatrix, who is leaving to get married. As the women reminisce, long denied feelings are unearthed and a bitter, entrenched relationship is healed.

Cafe Puttanesca has perhaps the most skilled integration of talk and singing that I have heard in quite awhile. A character might introduce a song with something like, "I'll sing the part that I remember" and it blends right in. The sense of the time is also remarkable. You'd swear Ogborn's songs and music, brand new, have been around for over fifty years. One little problem is that at times songs are sung so fast and with such outrageous accents that much of the intricate wording is lost on the audience.

The Arcadia stage has been transformed into the cafe everyone would love. Warm, inviting, and inclusive, its appointments are letter perfect, and the buildings and rain created outside the cafe's front door are so believable it's unbelievable. The scenic designer, Bob Phillips, and the lighting director, James Leitner are magicians.

They all put on a great little show, with its music and amiable carryings on. Cafe Puttanesca is a fine, full, well-written, well-staged and all around splendid little musical cabaret. Now Michael Ogborn's problem is, how will he top this?

Cafe Puttanesca
Music and lyrics by Michael Ogborn
Book by Terrence J. Nolen and Michael Ogborn
Directed by Terrence J. Nolen

Cast: Tony Braithwaite, Jilline Ringle, Tracie Higgins, Mary Martello, Elisa Matthews, Vince DiMura
Set Design: Bob Phillips
Lighting Design: James Leitner
Costume Design: K.J. Gilmer
Sound Design: Nick Rye Running time: 90 mins with no intermission 9/11/2003-11/02/2003;
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 9/18 performance at the Arden Theater

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