“Serrano the Musical,” in its world premiere at the Matrix Theatre, relocates “Cyrano de Bergerac,” originally set in 1640 France, to New York’s Little Italy, around now.
Edmond Rostand’s classic tale, in which literary gifts prove more seductive than good looks, serves up pure wish-fulfillment to us nerds. As its long history of adaptations (including Steve Martin's 1987 film, "Roxanne") suggests, it resonates pretty much anywhere.
Book writer and lyricist Madeline Sunshine’s transformation of “Cyrano” into a mob drama explains the violence in the plot and, not coincidentally, allows the talented cast to have fun with Italian American stereotypes. But in other ways the fit feels a little strained.
Serrano (Tim Martin Gleason) retains the original's oversized nose (a putty-colored prosthetic designed by Byron Batista), his high culture and his habit of speaking in verse, but now he’s a hit man, a trusted fixer for Don Reyo (Peter van Norden).
His lofty sensibility is hard to reconcile with his profession, even in light of the existential complexity of the mobsters in “The Sopranos” (a show that may well have had some influence on the concept for “Serrano”).
Other plot points have a similarly calculated feel, as though Sunshine was checking remunerative musical-theater devices off a list as she wedged them into her pun- and expletive-laced book.
It’s tough to get to Broadway these days without a drag act, so “Serrano” includes a subplot about Don Reyo’s estranged son, Nickie (Chad Borden), a female impersonator who does high-camp nightclub shows (delightfully choreographed by Peggy Hickey).
In the main storyline, Serrano is obliged by circumstance, detailed at length in dialogue and song, to fix up a gorgeous lunkhead named Vinnie Pepperini (Chad Doreck) with the beautiful Rosanna (Suzanne Petrela), whom Serrano himself secretly loves.
Both Gleason and Petrela, along with many of the supporting cast members, are likable performers and strong singers. Director Joel Zwick (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) infuses the still-wobbly book with an engaging energy that makes the frequent clunkers and occasional grammatical errors forgivable.
The songs, composed by Robert Tepper, are light and euphonious; Sunshine’s lyrics tell engrossing stories, and many of the song-and-dance numbers—such as Rosanna’s anthem to “Bad Boys,” and the questionable advice of her drunken mother (Valerie Perri) to “Be a Broad”—come together with a charming theatricality.
But the show might fall flat without Doreck, whose dopey, sweet, over-the-top Vinnie unapologetically steals every scene he’s in. Charm, despite what Rostand may have wanted us to believe, doesn’t depend entirely on impeccable writing.
Still, another draft or two certainly wouldn’t hurt this diverting, promising work in progress.
“Serrano the Musical,” Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 29. $34.99. (323) 960-7774 or www.serranothemusical.com. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.