May 26th, 2024

Show Review: Mambo Italiano mixes culture and comedy in powerful performance

By ANNA SMITH on May 2, 2024.

Loretta Lutz, Noah Smith and Bruce Sanford take centre stage during an emotional confession in Medicine Hat Musical Theatre's production of Mambo Italiano.--New Photo Anna Smith

Medicine Hat Musical Theatre’s Mambo Italiano is, simply put, everything; it manages to be both hilarious and grounded in a way that will strike home, and follows the viewer long after the curtain falls.

The subject matter, at first glance, seems comical and larger than life, and the opening scene far from discourages this. The characters are loud, warm and passionate, their dinner table talk indistinguishable from an argument for anyone not coming from a similar culture.

This only makes the stark contrast of one of the romantic leads, Noah Smith’s portrayal of Angelo, all the more pointed – he speaks coolly, almost analytically. The war between his desire to distance himself from his culture and the desire to be accepted by it is clear and evokes an empathetic pain from anyone who’s already gone through their own coming of age.

The story itself, told in a series of small slices cut between the Barbieri family dining room and Angelo’s apartment, follows Angelo as he comes out to his family, outing his partner Nino in the process, and the fallout as both families try, and initially fail, to take the news in stride.

Where Angelo is cold, Nino as portrayed by Bretton Labash seems quintessentially Italian in all but accent, a conflict that builds beautifully throughout the play.

The experience is far from universal for those who have come out, but the emotions feel visceral and real in a way that evokes both laughter and tears.

The set itself is simple, relying on only two spaces and the closed curtain to set the scene, but it creates a small, intimate world through which the story unfolded. There is a playful use of the theatre space, as the stage-side bar opens up for one of the characters to take a seat and drink away his coming-out woes both, and shocks and delights the unprepared viewer.

Each actor has their moment to shine throughout, from heartfelt monologues to dead relatives to the climax of the play, in which the tension between all parties comes to a head, building to what is coolly remarked on as “the slap,” while Angelo shows a streak of rare cruelty to his deeply emotional family and now-former lover.

Loretta Lutz certainly shines as well as Maria Barbieri, feeling every bit a mother grieving her idealized future for her son. Every stage of this grief is seen on this stage, from the initial shock and denial of anger to their acceptance and reconciliation as a family

This arc also serves to make the audience mourn the way that the mirroring family falls short of acceptance, though Deborah Deans’ debut performance as Lina is nothing but spectacular while doing so.

The drive home following Mambo Italiano was one spent in haunted contemplation, the final lines of the play, a remark on Angelo’s deceased aunt, seeming to echo as something of a warning for those tempted to hide their true selves, or pressure others to do so – that in a world where everyone chose to dance the tarantella, she died still trying to teach them to mambo.

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