Regional Reviews: New Jersey
At the age of 17 in 1957, as a result of his popular performances in neighborhood Bronx venues, Dion DiMucci was signed by the independent Laurie Records label. DiMucci along and his back-up singers were billed as Dion and the Belmonts (Dion came from the Belmont section of the Bronx and its entertainment center was on Belmont Avenue). A pioneer doo-wop artist, Dion was an instant success whose enormously successful string of early recordings began with "I Wonder Why," which rose to #22 on the Billboard Hot Hits chart. This led Holly to recruit Dion to be a part of a national tour which also featured Richardson and Valens.
The framing opening scene of The Wanderer depicts them in performance at the Clear Lake (Ohio) Surf Ballroom on the evening before the fatal crash, and arrangements are being made for the fatal flight. Thereafter, the balance of first act takes us back to the Bronx and Dion's extraordinary rise in the previous year. starting with a scene of drug use and gang warfare performed to Dion's "King of the New York Streets".
The first act's final scene returns us to "the day the music died." On that night, there is a tremendous snowstorm and Holly, exhausted from too many nights on a cold, very uncomfortable bus, has rented a plane to take him from the Iowa concert tour site. The plane is only a three-seater, so Holly has the other three headliners flip a coin to determine which one would have to ride the bus. Valens loses the toss. When Dion learns that his seat will cost him $36, it reminds him that his parents pay $36 a month for their Bronx apartment. Not wanting to pay a month's rent for "a forty-five-minute flight," Dion convinces Valens to switch places with him. The first act concludes with a radio announcement of the plane's crash during take-off.
Act II begins the morning after the plane crash and follows Dion's six-year foray into heavy drug addiction as a result of his self-perceived guilt for the death of Ritchie Valens. Eventually, the loyalty and devotion of (and marriage to) his girlfriend Susan Butterfield, a newly acquired religious fervor, and his growing maturity (demonstrated by his shedding of his alter-ego who has been leading him into drug use) enable him to resurrect his life and career.
This next part is tricky. My knowledge of the life and music of Dion is piddling, compared to that of book author Charles Messina, and infinitesimal compared to that of the man with the production credit, "Produced in Cooperation with Dion DiMucci." Furthermore, within limits, effective storytelling almost invariably requires the reshaping of factual narratives. Thus, my observations are on the impact of the tone and emphasis of the storytelling, and bear no relation as to its factual accuracy.
Given its many undeniable excellences, The Wanderer is eminently fixable. However, at present its book is overly dark, often lacking in clarity, generic in its feel, and simultaneously overstuffed and underdeveloped.
As a result, The Wanderer fails to sufficiently convey the delight inherent in the musicianship, triumphant ambition, decency, and apparently happy married family life (almost six decades and counting) of a very special person. Perhaps Dion was actually a darker, more troubled youth than portrayed here. However, in his initial music videos and TV appearances, Dion appears to be a sweet, clean-cut, healthy and robust collegiate type. Of course, his conflicts and demons should be part of this show, but not in the unclear, unconvincing, and overly fraught fashion presented here. A sense of stark, dark intensity prevails that is excessive for a "jukebox musical," even as Dion is successfully overcoming his fatal air crash induced drug addiction.
Initially, Dion comes across as a clean-cut, musical prodigy with minimal interest in the drugs proffered to him by other youthful companions. Prime among them is "Johnny," who describes himself as Dion's manager and constantly throws out random and disconnected, good and bad advice to Dion on his career while Dion is interacting with others. However, no one other than Dion acknowledges Johnny's presence nor interacts with him in any manner. His presence throughout is stilted and strange. Although some audience members may have been ahead of me, it was not until well into the second act when Dion sheds him that I concluded that Johnny was actually Dion's largely destructive alter ego. The unacknowledged physical presence of Johnny by anyone other than Dion registers as uncomfortably odd and stilted.
More relevant and engrossing is the dark depiction of Dion's domineering, content-to-be-unemployed, neer-do-well father, Pat. The telling of the pain and unhappiness which he brings to his downtrodden breadwinner wife Frances and their son, along with additional, already on-board, story threads (particularly, the exploration of Dion's shakily depicted relationship with Laurie Records' honcho Bob Schwartz) could more effectively encapsulate the issues raised by Johnny without his uncomfortable corporeal presence. Additionally, more clarity is needed as to Dion's relationships with the Baldies and their successors, the Belmonts, none of whom are named, characterized, nor individualized in my manner. Both back-up trios are played by the same actors, and The Baldies appear to be recruited from Dion's street gang. However, there is little detail regarding either trio of back-up singers.
There are a plethora of delights in this jam-packed musical which need more breathing room to attain its full potential.
Dion is portrayed with intelligence, decency, sweetness and earnestness by Mike Wartella. Blessed with a talent and love for rock 'n' roll, doo-wop, country, jazz, Christian and folk music, and the guitar, and a disdain for stage theatrics–what is there not to admire and cheer as Dion explores his musical interests? From the early-on recording session of the classic "A Teenager in Love" and "Runaround Sue"–accompanied by a terrific (Saint Anthony's Festival) street dance–in the first act through the concluding songs (the contemplative "Abraham, Martin and John" and the rousing "The Wanderer"), Wartella and company provide us with stirring, strongly arranged and performed musical entertainment.
Johnny Tammaro captures the uncaring selfishness and hurtful nature of Dion's father, Pat. When Messina softens Pat's character as well as Dion's feelings toward him after overcoming his addiction, I don't think audiences will buy it, thanks to Tammaro's honest performance. Joli Tribuzio is particularly strong as Dion's mother, Frances. Tribuzio is deeply sympathetic not in spite of the hard, unpleasant shell which her painful life has given her, but because of it. Joe Barbara is convincing as a troubled Bronx cleric whose adherence to religious principle prevents him from providing Frances with the seemingly best advice regarding her marriage.
Alter ego Johnny is well played by the estimable Joey McIntyre, who has transitioned from a singing career beginning with New Kids on the Block into a reliable musical theatre actor. Christy Altomare is poignant and appealing as Dion's new girlfriend and incipient wife Susan whose former Vermont domicile was higher class than Dion's Bronx, although she carries troubles of her own. Jeffrey Schecter solidly powers through the role of Laurie Record's Bob Schwartz. Although Charles Messina's book can't seem to make up its mind whether he is a good guy or a bad guy, Schecter understands that he is a businessman whose business decisions will sometimes frustrate the vision of an artist.
Kingsley Leggs is dramatically and musically strong as the solidly inspirational Willie Green, a former jazz musician who is working as a local Bronx janitor after having descended into drug addiction and giving up his musical career. Now clean and inspired by the Gospel and contemporary gospel music, Green provides Dion with inspiration. Jasmine Rogers displays quiet strength as his loving, but insightfully, no-nonsense schoolteacher daughter.
The ensemble is solid throughout. Particularly impressive in smaller roles and the ensemble are Stephen Cerf (Big Bopper, Baldy/Belmont) and the delightfully irrepressible idiosyncratic dancer Janaye McAlpine.
There are 29 songs listed alphabetically in the program without the names of their performers. A number of the songs are sung in shortened versions and in the form of medleys. Some of the most familiar titles to me not already cited here include "Chantilly Lace," La Bamba", "Only You," "Ruby Baby," and "That's My Desire." It hardly need be said that the musical performances are first rate throughout. The choreography by Sarah O'Gleby makes a major contribution to the delight of the songs. To my mind, more, and more extended, dance numbers would add measurably to the pleasures here.
Beowulf Boritt's dark and stylized Belmont Avenue set is not particularly evocative of the musical's time and locale, but elements of it rotate seamlessly to reveal the inside of buildings and other settings Furthermore, Boritt, together with lighting designer Jake DeGroot, has designed several rock concert style settings for the second act which provide top of the line, not to be missed, thrilling entertainment.
Director Kenneth Ferrone directs with skill and clearly demonstrates the ability to create deeply intense theatre. However, reducing the excessiveness of the intensity, together with some alleviation of the prevailing dark mood and clarifying the overloaded, insufficiently well-defined book should make it even better than it already is.
The Wanderer runs through April 24, 2022, at Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn NJ. For tickets and information, call the box office at 973-376-4343 or visit www.papermill.org.
Based on the Life and Music of Dion