‘Passagio’ at The Mason Players at George Mason University by Keith Tittermary

FOUR STARS
“Passaggio… used to describe the transition area between a series of notes, usually occurring between registers of the voice” – www.vocalist.org.uk

The Mason Players and the Department of Theater at George Mason University presented the original work Passaggio, written by Alumnus and current faculty member in the English Language Institute, Michael Patrick Smith.

The cast in rehearsal. Photo by Kathleen Barth

The cast in rehearsal. Photo by Kathleen Barth

The play centers around a fictional town in Italy in 1959 that each year stages an annual festival to honor the Madonna, but a rival town has opened a cinema, showing the Enrico Caruso biopic, Il Grande Caruso. The mayor of the town, Franco Baldini, played with an endearing charm by Junior theater major, Collin Riley, is a passionate opera fan who once met The Great Caruso and lives in that past glory. As the town is being enthralled by this new media, he attempts to focus them on rebuilding the opera house, and he promises to bring in the star of the movie, Mario Lanza, to perform at the town’s Madonna Festival.

As the town is rebuilding the opera house, they undergo a transformation of realizing their past dreams. Baldini waves his naïve magic much to the tune of Harold Hill. While the mayor really has no connection to Lanza, he succeeds in having the townsfolk come together until the inevitable climax of an undetermined fire that destroys the opera house. Without ruining the charming ending, the town does come together to present the festival with a unique “star.”

Producing an original work is always a risky endeavor, and guest Artist Director Stevie Zimmerman does a fine job of navigating the cast through this delightful melodrama. Zimmerman should be commended for her work in the moments between the lines. A lot of the story is told through tableau, whether scripted or an invention of the director, it works extremely well and each individual member of the cast creates very unique personas of a 1950s small town in Italy.

From the cranky priest to the handsome town butcher, each actor really brings out small details. Senior Theater major, Cathryn Benson, as Baldini’s somewhat overbearing daughter, is a notable standout among the very capable cast. Benson creates a character who is obviously acting as a mother to her younger sister (and sometimes to her father as well), and really takes charge of keeping him grounded in reality.

The main problem with the show, however, is the script. In fact it is quite good; it just needs some polishing. There’s an old theater adage: “Play’s aren’t written, they’re rewritten” and that applies here. There are some really great and touching moments (particularly the realization of the citizen’s dreams), but there are some places that back story could be more fleshed out (Baldini and the butcher’s wife; Baldini’s presumed deceased wife, for instance); as well as some characters that just don’t work, though to no fault of those portraying them. I think the heart of the story is there, and the journey of Baldini is a captivating one, and hopefully playwright Smith can improve upon these for subsequent productions.

The cast in rehearsal for “Passaggio.” Photo by Kathleen Barth.

The cast in rehearsal for “Passaggio.” Photo by Kathleen Barth.

For a play that uses a musical term as its title, and with the main character’s love of opera, this piece screams to be musicalized, whether using existing music in the opera canon or an original score, but there were times it felt as if a character was going to break out into song, and that possibly could enhance the story.

The show was also a nice mix of professional and student designers, particularly the beautiful lighting design of Junior Theater major, Connie Chee. It a show about a community coming together, it was very nice to see the George Mason Theater community come together and present this beautiful little story.

Running time: Two hours and 5 minutes, with one 15 minute intermission.

Passaggio plays through April 7, 2013 at the Harris Theate at George Mason University – 4400 University Drive, in Fairfax, VA. For tickets call the box office at 703-993-2787, or purchase them online.

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