The Nov. 11-22 Philadelphia workshop of Barrymore Award-winning composer Michael Ogborn's latest musical, Café Puttanesca, has prompted the writer and his director to expand the onetime cabaret-style revue into something more like a book musical, Ogborn told Playbill On-Line two days before a free Nov. 23 public performance in Philly.
Since starting Nov. 11, Ogborn said an extra actress was added to the Arden Theatre Company workshop cast, directed by artistic director Terrence J. Nolen. The character of the wife of the owner of an Amsterdam café in 1948 was previously an off-stage voice, but Ogborn and Nolen wanted the world inked-in with more color, so opera veteran Rebecca Robbins was brought into the onetime four-character show. An Italian aria was written for the actress, who plays a wife who cooks and gives haven to international prostitutes in the café she runs with her American ex-GI husband.
The cast of five includes Jeffrey Coon (as the Owner), former Miss America Kate Shindle (as the British-born Duchess), Anne Robinson (as the French Marquesa) and Mary Martello (as the German Baroness). Martello, by coincidence, is the baroness in Walnut Street Theatre's current The Sound of Music, not far from the Arden.
"Working with Terry Nolen is incredible," Ogborn said of his collaborator on Baby Case, which won four 2002 Barrymores in October. "He's been very generous and always has a vision of what something could be. The show, which I only started in March, is now 95 minutes and expanded, and these are real people in a real place. It's not just a character-driven revue."
The pastiche songs cooked up by composer-lyricist librettist Ogborn are presented as tunes the ladies recall from their homelands or from cabarets of the past, before World War II. "What I intended the score to do is best served by a developed script," Ogborn said. "Without character development, the songs didn't land as well as they could. That's what we learned from this process."
The show is set in an unnamed café in Amsterdam, though the locals are starting to dub it "Café Puttanesca" because prostitutes gather there. (Puttanesca, Ogborn said, is so named after the food hookers would buy or barter on an evening out and then lump together for a shared meal.)
"I see Amsterdam, after the war, as a place that promoted tolerance," Ogborn said. "And this is the very beginning of a controlled red-light district."
Among the 17 pastiche songs in a show Ogborn bills as being about "music and memories, survival, marriage, trust and starting over" are: "My Mother's Frying Pan," "Artists and Models," "Au Revoir, L'amour," "Oh How I Miss the Kaiser," "Rasputin and the Russian Nun," "Ou Apres la Guerre," and more. Ogborn bills the musical as comic and rueful, and said the songs are meant to alternately amuse and touch the heart.
Brian Lowdermilk is the musical director of the workshop. Ogborn will play the piano for the 2 PM Nov. 23 free public reading of the show, at the Arden, 40 N. 2nd Street, in Philadelphia. Admission is first-come, first-served. Visit ardentheatre.org for more information.
Ogborn's Baby Case, a fantasia about the public hype that surrounded the kidnapping the Lindbergh baby, won four 2002 Barrymore Awards, Philly's highest theatre honor, for Outstanding Overall Production of a Musical, Outstanding Ensemble in a Musical, Outstanding Leading Actor in a Musical (Scott Greer) and Outstanding Original Music (Ogborn).
The Café Puttanesca workshop is made possible by the Independence Foundation New Play Showcase, which helps launch new works at the Arden. Five works from the showcase have gone on to production at the Arden or elsewhere since 1999 (including Baby Case).
— By Kenneth Jones