Attending Spettacolo! is like attending any number of Midwestern dinner theaters—the crowd’s mostly composed of silver-maned pensioners, the actors’ accents are comically bad and the plot is full of slapstick, “audience participation,” and a high degree of fuzzy-wuzzyness. On most occasions—discounting freak fires or food-poisoning—Granny will leave the dinner theater thoroughly impressed and raving about “those enthusiastic youngsters” as she totters back to her chartered motor coach and the tyranny of nursing home tedium. Likewise, the same impression will dawn upon the survivors of the Spettacolo! experience. It’s giddy, it’s charming, it’s thoroughly silly. Ultimately, even for those few theatergoers who aren’t yet on Social Security, Spettacolo! is fun and a welcome break from yet another three hours of moody scowling tritely packaged as “serious drama.”
When the stage doors open, audience members are corralled, not into the traditional spread of chairs masked in darkness, but around the perimeter of a cheerfully lit and appealingly constructed Italian piazza. Some members are directed to lounge in a mock-up “café” where they are served cups of juice; others sit on the steps of a “church” which is next to a “market,” etc. The whole set maintains a whimsical professional-amateur appearance, similar to the high school prom decorations for a WB sitcom: too conspicuously artificial to be considered temporary, but way too cleverly constructed to be built by a bunch of student council officers during third period. The stage design is emblematic of the weird balance of comic silliness and dramatic intent that characterizes the entire production. Born out of a series of improvisational workshops, Spettacolo! is a loosely stitched together variety show that supposedly imitates the street performers that haunt Italian city-centers. There’s a klezmer band, there’s a piano player, there’s a mime ventilating through a kazoo and then there’s Olivia Wills.
The show works best (and is, ironically, most authentically Italian) as a chaotic but choreographed one-ring circus. A clarinet wails, a violin whines, a mime gets trapped inside one of those pesky invisible boxes and it all results in general merriment, controlled confusion and laughs. Spettacolo! also delivers some really fabulous dance numbers—not high-brow flopping and pensive skipping, but the old Gene Kelly/Bob Fosse/Jazz Hands school of dancing: where everybody’s up and smiling like it’s Christmas morning and working their explicitly coordinated asses off in a series of in sync, beat-driven dance moves. It’s clean, impressive and snap-snap-a-do-rap snappy. Despite its Italian setting, two shimmering belly dancers make incongruous but interesting appearances. What’s more, there is a sultry singing number, Cabaret-style, replete with a spotlight and a piano and enough miming throughout the show to sate my miming appetite for another decade or so. This is clearly a Princetonian view of Italy: a sanitized place of wide ethnic and cultural diversity, where everyone is cherished for their own unique skill-set and polite manners. Nice, but not Italy. Nevertheless, despite the deliberate lack of realism or because of it, the spunky, calliope-driven aspect of the production is fresh enough, professional enough and creative enough to entertain Grandparent and Grandchild alike.
Then, there’s Olivia Wills. Ms. Wills is, for better or for worse, the star of the show. Ms. Wills is a very talented actress. Her performance is as striking, harebrained and smart as Lucille Ball in the comedienne’s very best episodes of “I Love Lucy.” And that’s no mean compliment. Will’s timing is impeccable and her command of the audience’s attention is complete and unquestioned from the moment she enters stage. However, the plot, which takes up the majority of both her talent and the audience’s attention, is inane. Not ever-so-delightful inane, just bad. Her character goes to Italy and meets this chap who is prone to fainting dramatically at awkward moments and wearing ugly straw hats. Despite his choice in headwear and his unexplained disease, the two eventually hook-up after a whirlwind romance and then…HE DIES! (gasp!)…but not before a dream sequence wherein she straddles his corpse and dry-humps him to a crescendoing choir of collective orgasmic groaning from the surrounding cast. That’s when I got really fed up with the plot, but luckily for me that’s when they ended the show and we all got to go home.
I wrote Wills was the star of the show “for better or for worse”—not because she wasn’t talented, that she was, even in her protracted dry-humping scenes (there are two such scenes, for all you members of the Olivia Wills Dry-Humping Fan Club out there)—but because Spettacolo! didn’t need a single star. The show’s packed with stars. The cast is huge and stuffed to the gills with musical, acting and dancing talent. The format of comic skits interspersed with music and dance numbers is not very popular today (Lawrence Welk, any one? Your Show of Shows? Carol Burnett? OK, I’ll stop), but here it works, and works really well. The plot only slows everything down and ruins the feeling of cheeky jubilation with often-crummy writing and predictable action. Forcing a melodramatic plot down our throats only detracts from the pageant of genius that was already there from the first Benvenuto a Spettacolo!