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Marry Harry — American Theater Group at Hamilton Stage

DSC_8440“Marry Harry” is downright refreshing.

Light and old-fashioned, the musical the American Theater Group presents at Rahway’s Hamilton Stage entertains in the most elemental way. It engages you thoroughly from its first minute and keeps you pleasantly and contentedly diverted through the final scene, which is actually a bit of a surprise.

Composer Dan Martin, lyricist Michael Biello, and book writer Jennifer Robbins aren’t trying to break new ground with their simple story about unexpected love at first sight. In fact, they keep “Marry Harry” delightful by sticking to the tried-and-true boy-meets–girl formula and rekindling the sweet easiness of musicals that were popular from the 1920s through the 1950s. Robbins’s book is full of complications for the characters to work out, but it remains amiable and deals with realistic human situations a little love, luck, honesty, independence, and common sense can resolve. “Marry Harry” is a story about love that should but doesn’t go smoothly, and everything Martin, Biello, Robbins, director Kent Nicholson, and his appealing cast do while playing it is amusing and destined to keep a smile on your face for the duration.

“Marry Harry” may stick to the basics, but it also demonstrates the craft of its creators. Martin’s score is constantly tuneful, and Biello’s lyrics have heart to them. They owe their lineage more to the Great American Songbook and show tunes of bygone ages than to the rock or, worse, unmelodic songs we hear in many musicals today.  The opening number, “Harry’s Way,” is a witty, tongue-twisting concoction that makes you think of Frank Loesser and others who wrote songs to be artful instead of expedient. Its clever construction is quite a nice surprise and make you look forward to what else Martin and Biello have in  store. The composing team does not disappoint. Their songs remain tuneful and integral to “Marry Harry’s” plot.

Robbins, in addition to writing a book that gives “Marry Harry’s” several characters the chance to express themselves in a personal, individual way, includes two passages of performance art that only slightly spoof the self-indulgent genre while providing good examples of what smart performance art might  be.

Competence, good writing, natural performances, and a will to entertain keep “Marry Harry” a gratifying treat that never oversells itself and never stints in its ability to amuse. Love, though genuine and ardent, is always kept in perspective, and sentiment remains honest and never slips into sentimentality. Good jokes and appropriate character cracks abound, and “Marry Harry” proves to be lighthearted fun that leaves some room for characters to be thoughtful and ponder what they want out of life and from their relationships. It’s a good, solid, undemanding piece that can be a tonic in these frenzied, angst-laden times.

Harry Cudacini runs a restaurant in the same lower Manhattan location where his father went into business 40 years earlier.

Competition is steep, so Harry constantly comes up with ideas that will make Cudacini’s a novelty. His latest brainstorm is to offer a different cuisine every night. In addition to the traditional Italian dishes for which Cudacini’s is known, Harry has an Indian night, Mexican night, Japanese night, etc., his staff dressing in costumes that approximate the culture whose food is being featured.

Harry is beset by several matters when his landlady, Francine, makes an unexpected call. She has been at a nearby bridal salon where fittings proved to be for naught because her daughter’s wedding to a financial tycoon has been canceled. Francine and her daughter really stop into Harry’s to use the facilities and have some of the restaurant’s famous biscotti before heading back uptown. While visiting, though, Francine happens to remember that Harry is a few months behind on his rent. Her daughter, Sherri, confirms Francine’s assertion, and the stability of Cudacini’s becomes an issue.

Harry has a son, Little Harry, who is a superb cook and aspires to be a great chef. He and Sherri knew each other when they were children but have not seen each other as adults. They fall into an easy rapport, and even though Sherri is on the rebound from being jilted, they arrange for a date.

Love ensues, and Little Harry and Sherri become engaged. Their path to the altar is rockier than one might expect, and that forms the crux of the musical while you also see Francine’s reaction to the match and the father Harry trying to preserve his relationship with his companion of eight years, Debbie. Further complications arise from an offer Little Harry gets to be a sous chef at a swank, multi-star Manhattan restaurant and the shenanigans of one of Harry’s food suppliers, Ping, who when not delivering noodles, stages performance art.

The musical makes the most of its plot twists. Rudimentary though they are, they tell a human tale of love, marriage, and relationship, one that may seem familiar and touch a chord with many in “Marry Harry’s” audience.

Kent Nicholson’s production sails along breezily, one scene neatly flowing into another and each being bright in its own way. I am particularly drawn to the subway scene and wedding rehearsal sequence in which Ping, played with wit by Tamara Young, performs “The Gap,” her paean to the famous distance between a subway platform and a train, and “The Death of Me,” an hilarious send-up of weddings and marriage Ping prepares to perform at Little Harry and Sherri’s nuptial ceremony. Other smart passages follow Sherri’s discovery of how good “Nonnina’s Biscotti” are and Francine’s declaration that Sherri is 30 and ought to pay attention to her biological clock. Francine, you see, wants to be a grandmother.

The cast, including Jenna Dallacco, Sue Yenn-Ng, and Andrew Chappelle, especially Andrew Chappelle, who play a variety of characters as needed, help keep Nicholson’s production sparking.

Howie Michael Smith is a likeable Little Harry who maintains his regular guy posture and attitude throughout the musical.

Little Harry is the kind of guy you root for. He’s hard working, he has ambition, and he is polite to everyone, particularly Debbie who has been like a mother to him. Smith keeps him salt-of-the-Earth, a man who is content with who he is but has some concern about who he might have to be when he works in another person’s restaurant and is a married man.

Like his castmates, Smith sings well and handles comic and serious scenes with equal aplomb.

Jillian Louis is a winning Sherri. Doing well but feeling unsatisfied working with her mother, Sherri longs for new challenges and a new way to use her business talents. Louis is convincing in showing how well Sherri adjusts from leaving her mother’s lofty upper Park Avenue digs to the simpler world of lower Manhattan. Though well-to-do, Sherri is also down-to-Earth, and Louis takes advantage of that trait to make her quite appealing and sympathetic when her happiness is threatened.

April Woodall is both the classic picture of a well-off Manhattan matron and a comic delight as Francine, a woman who gladly traded Mott Street for Park Avenue but secretly enjoys coming back to her roots.

Woodall has a great way with a one-liner and makes the most of Francine’s ripostes and sarcastic expressions.

Michele Ragusa is touching as Debbie, a woman who feels taken for granted and, in ways, betrayed  by Harry in spite of their long relationship. She and Smith have a lovely scene, in which Debbie’s maternal nature comes forward, prior to Little Harry’s marriage. Ragusa also adds splendid operatic lilts to Martin and Biello’s score, especially when she sings about Little Harry’s new boss, Lidia.

Danny Rutigliano is a whirlwind as Big Harry, a big-hearted man who brims with ideas and tries to keep his business and family together amid a tempest of events.

The reason for saying “especially Andrew Chappelle” is this big bear of an actor has a pliable baby face that works well in his scenes with Young’s Ping and communicates a wealth of expressions when Chappelle is playing one of the sous chefs at Cudacini’s.

The cast in general is a powerhouse in music, dance, and comic acting. Each elicited laughs just by raising an eyebrow of moving an arm so no one would steal a bite of the delectable biscotti. Each also contributed a moment that made you empathetic to his or her plight. The troupe’s versatility is admirable, and each member of the company works well individually or in an ensemble.

Bethanie Wampol’s set also proves versatile as it converts from a restaurant to a sidewalk to a subway car. Stefanie Genoa did a fine job with the costumes, especially for Francine and Debbie. Wendy Seyb’s choreography reinforced the musical’s lively tone and rhythmic agility.

“Marry Harry” runs through Sunday, May 11 in a production by the American Theater Group at Hamilton Stage, 360 Hamilton Street, in Rahway, N.J.  Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from  $35 to $30 and can be obtained by calling 732-449-8226 or by going online to www.americantheatergroup.org.

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