BWW REVIEW: Penny Fuller Delights in 13 THINGS ABOUT ED CARPOLOTTI

Book, music and lyrics by Barry Kleinbort; based on a play by Jeffrey Hatcher; directed by Barry Kleinbort; music director, Paul Greenwood; scenic design, Bill Clarke; lighting design, Brian J. Lilienthal; stage manager, Casey Leigh Hagwood; assistant stage manager, Peter Crewe

Cast:

Penny Fuller as Virginia with pianist Paul Greenwood

Performances and Tickets:

Now through December 21, Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 E. Merrimack St., Lowell, Mass.; tickets range from $20-$60 and are available online at www.mrt.org or by calling the Box Office at 978-654-4678.

Illustrious stage and screen actress Penny Fuller (Tony nominations for Applause and The Dinner Party and an Emmy Award for The Elephant Man) brings all of her charm and incandescence to Merrimack Repertory Theatre this holiday season in the lovely one-woman musical 13 THINGS ABOUT ED CARPOLOTTI. Based on an intriguing monologue from the Jeffrey Hatcher play Three Viewings, this new musical written, scored and directed by Barry Kleinbort is 70 non-stop minutes of pure delight.

Shortly after newly widowed Virginia Carpolotti (Fuller) begins to put her late husband Ed's affairs in order, she discovers through a series of strange voice mail messages - and a mysterious $1-million ransom note - that the husband she loved unconditionally, and to whom she was devoted for 40 years, has left her in deep, deep debt. She finds that she owes huge sums of money to her brother-in-law Frank and to an assortment of goons named Dino, Vinny, and Bob O'Klock. Her lawyer, Danny, and banker, Art, are of no help since the loan papers had been signed by Virginia and are therefore in her name. Alone and desperate, what's a woman to do? Well, in Virginia's case, the answer is to sing.

Like Anna Leonowens before her who "Whistled a Happy Tune," Virginia steels herself against adversity and determines that she's "Gonna Be Fine." Bathing herself in fond remembrances and slipping into musical reverie whenever the going gets tough, she gamely attempts to reconcile the husband she adored with the startling information about the wheeler-dealer who has left her vulnerable and penniless. She refuses to disavow the passion and laughter she shared with Ed, but she won't deny the situation he has left her in, either.

Fuller masterfully wafts between joy and sadness as her loving memories collide with devastating reality. She also unexpectedly deflects the growing ridiculousness of her circumstances with a flick of humor, gesturing as if to send all care vaporized into the ether. When recalling a first date ("At the Liberty Theatre") or the song ("You Are My Happiness") that she and Ed played on the juke box in their favorite diner, her eyes sparkle with equal parts love and loss. When she realizes that the beautiful "House on Bray Barton" in which she shared two-thirds of her lifetime with Ed may be taken from her in partial payment on a loan, her once easy smile hardens ever so slightly as if to hold a torrent of painful emotions at bay.

Writer/composer/director Kleinbort has enabled his tender and touching music to fold into the story seamlessly by giving Virginia the nervous tic of humming whenever she's anxious or afraid. Fuller is thus easily able to segue in and out of songs, using the music to remember and to calm herself. Having her music director/pianist Paul Greenwood on stage with her also seems completely natural. Since he's a figment of her imagination anyway, he can be anything she wants him to be. It also helps that the set is Virginia's elegantly appointed drawing room, complete with a photo-covered baby grand at which the very talented Greenwood plays unobtrusively. When not accompanying Fuller in song, he often underscores her scenes with a gentle musical motif.

Even though 13 THINGS ABOUT ED CARPOLOTTI is a one-woman musical, it is populated by a host of other characters thanks to Fuller's adroit adoption of multiple voices. As she recounts conversations with her attorney, banker, brother-in-law and loan sharks, she enacts both sides of the dialog to great comic effect. She also has delicious one-sided telephone conversations with her dear friend Tootie, an uncontrollable gossip who, from her snowbird's nest down in Florida, knows more about what's going on in Virginia's back yard than Virginia knows herself.

Kleinbort has smartly broken up Virginia's 70-minute one-act monologue into scenes which raise the stakes with each new phone call or written message. The plot twists and turns until finally Virginia reads the 13 things about her husband that are on "The List" she has been hesitant to open since its delivery.

As artistic director Charles Towers says in his program notes, the ending of 13 THINGS ABOUT ED CARPOLOTTI is a gift of the heart. And Fuller wraps that gift exquisitely in a magnificent performance. From the sadness of her first "Holidays" without Ed to the hope of "One More Spring" at home, Fuller reaches in and touches the soul. Waiflike yet formidable, she's unquestionably "Gonna Be Fine."

PHOTOS BY MEGHAN MOORE: Paul Greenwood, pianist, and Penny Fuller as Virgina; Paul Greenwood and Penny Fuller; Penny Fuller



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