When you’ve played a role for 4,625 times like Yul Brynner did as the King of Siam, or Carol Channing, who played Dolly Levi for more than 5,000 performances, keeping the role fresh is one of the biggest challenges an actor can face. For Stamford’s Lou Ursone, who is going for a much smaller but still considerable long-run number, playing the same role is still exciting. Ursone will surpass the 150 mark playing Piccino Morello, when A MERRY MULBERRY STREET MUSICAL returns to Curtain Call’s Dressing Room Theatre on December 9.
A MERRY MULBERRY STREET MUSICAL has become an area favorite since it premiered at Curtain Call in 2009. This marks the seventh time the show has played a holiday season and Ursone is still amazed at its popularity. “When I wrote the show – the first play I had ever written – I hoped that it would be well-received and that we could have some fun with it. I never imagined that it would become the much-requested show that it has,” Ursone said.
“I am honored to be a part of the Mulberry Street legacy,” Ursone added, speaking of the play that is very likely the most produced romantic comedy in the City’s history. Local audiences were introduced to the Morello and Baccolini families in a 1939 production that just happened to feature Ursone’s great uncle as well as his father. “Each time I perform this role, I still get excited by the audience response and the camaraderie that we have as a cast.” he added. Many of the actors in the production have had great longevity as well, but none as much as Ursone.
Ursone joked that he is definitely a creature of habit when it comes to stage work. Earlier this year, he passed the 150 performance mark in another musical – 1776 – when he played John Adams at the Kweskin Theatre. “I love revisiting characters because it gives me a chance to look for nuances and other subtleties,” Ursone said. And maybe not so subtle moments…he noted that during a 2006 production in this same role, he discovered a moment where smashing a record was completely appropriate, that he had never thought about, nor had the director who had been working on the show since the 1960s.
Over the years there have been more than 1,000 performances of the show. “My first time appearing in Mulberry Street, I played the same role my dad did back in 1939…and it was the only play he was ever in…so it was pretty cool. The character of Piccino Morello that I have been playing on and off since 2002, was played by my great uncle, Mede Sementini,” Ursone said. (Photos of former actors who have played in the show as well as antique photos of various family members of the current cast, adorn the set.)
A Merry Mulberry Street Musical takes one back to 1944, where the Morello and Baccolini families are attempting to celebrate the holiday season in the midst of WWII. The laughs abound despite the challenges that these warm and charming characters face with sons at war overseas, warring sisters-in-law at home, and a never-ending battle over whose home-made wine is best. This show is graced with a great 1940s-style score, and, as in the original Mulberry Street, more than a few tugs at the heart and lots of laughs.
“Setting the play during WWII was very important for me,” Ursone said. “My dad and uncles all served overseas and were quite humble about their service to our country. As someone who has enjoyed the “American dream” made possible by the dedicated servicemen and women of that era, I think it’s very important that we never forget those veterans,” he added.
A Merry Mulberry Street Musical came to life after many years of procrastinating on Ursone’s part. He started thinking about writing a holiday version after the successful run of Mulberry Street back in June, 2002. He back-burnered his plans, but then decided to start developing the story line in late winter 2007. With the encouragement and support of his friend and mentor, the late Albert Pia, who wrote Mulberry Street, Ursone set out to make this show a reality. In this version, Ursone replaced one of the original characters with a new one, Piccino’s estranged sister Concetta, who was cast out for allegedly stealing another sister’s pasta fagioli recipe.
“Performing with many of the same cast members year after year you begin to feel like they are as much a part of your family as those truly related to you.” Ursone said. They are so close, that when the actor playing his son-in-law, Joe Efferen, and his wife, Kari Ann, decided to wed, they asked Ursone to perform the ceremony.
The success of the show has surprised and thrilled Ursone. He readily admits that just because he thought he could write a script, he had no idea of how to write music and lyrics. Enter the team of Lodin and Squier. Each is a very accomplished, award-winning, musical theatre writer in his own right, but they have collaborated on several projects as well…notable to Stamford audiences, Top of the Heap and Blindsided by a Diaper. which both premiered at Curtain Call. Jeffrey Lodin and William Squier were delighted to become part of the Mulberry Street tradition by contributing music that allows its beloved characters to sing. “Having seen how audiences have embraced the original play,” says lyricist Squier, “We’re just tickled to be a part of it!” According to Ursone, Lodin and Squier’s contributions have advanced and enhanced the story in ways he never expected. “I can’t imagine this play without their input,” Ursone said.
Joining Ursone on stage are: Chris Balestriere, John Capasso, Carole Claps, Benedetta Cordaro, Dana DiCerto, Joe Efferen, Stephen Emerick, Donna Fox, Elayne Mordoff, PJ Morello, Ginny Ruggieri, Lauren Nicole Sherwood and Gail Yudain. There will also be cameo appearances by area notables throughout the run of this production.
The production team is headed by director Brian Bianco, a Stamford native who has directed several past Curtain Call productions. “The characters from Mulberry Street speak to me so strongly as an artist, a storyteller and as an Italian-American,” said Bianco. “Each one provides a heart-felt link to friends and relatives who surrounded me in my early childhood and whose spirits continue to inspire me in my adulthood. A Merry Mulberry Street Musical provides a perfect balance of farce and emotional pathos that can be appreciated by all ethnicities, ages and backgrounds,” he added. The rest of the team includes Greg Chrzczon as music director, Peter Barbieri, Jr. for set design, Jamie LaJoie as lighting designer and Megan Latte Ormond as costumer. Stage management includes John Zimmerman, assisted by Martha Dombroski, Carol Foley and Martha Zimmerman.
A Merry Mulberry Street Musical, will play in The Dressing Room Theatre from December 9 – 19, Wednesday through Saturday evenings at 8:00pm and Sunday afternoons at 2:00pm. Call the Box Office for tickets at 203-461-6358 x36, or go online to www.curtaincallinc.com. Prices for all performances are $35 for adults, $25 for senior citizens and $20 for students and children. Group rates are also available upon request. Discounted passes offer great flexibility and significant savings.Thursday evenings: all seats $25. As of press time, the Sunday matinees are virtually sold out.