As the dust of World War II settles, three prostitutes gather in a dilapidated eatery to say goodbye to one of their own, in an evening filled with specialty songs by composer-lyricist Michael Ogborn, a 2002 Barrymore Award winner for the 2001 musical, Baby Case.
The musical gets its world premiere Sept. 11-Nov. 2 by Philadelphia's Arden Theatre Company, which produced the Lindbergh-kidnapping fantasia. Arden artistic director Terrence J. Nolen directed Baby Case and directs Café Puttanesca, also serving as co-librettist with Philadelphia native Ogborn.
The Arden run plays the intimate, 185-seat Arcadia space, configured as a semi-thrust with audience on three sides. Official opening is Sept. 16.
"Each woman sings from her own country: French cabaret music, Weimer cabaret music, British music hall," Ogborn told Playbill On-Line. "The owner is Irish-American, his wife is Italian..."
Ogborn explained that true to the origin of "puttanesca sauce," which has a variety of ingredients, each prostitute brings something to the table from her day of work — mussels from the docks, for example. "The café is a metaphor for the sauce, they each bring something to the place," he said. "The cafe is a melting pot of experience."
The songwriter said the goal of the musical comedy was to create a "smart, sexy, bawdy, entertainment." He admitted the characters "fight sentiment but they don't always win."
"It's a book musical, but the songs are not book songs," he said. "The women and the owner co-opt mythical standards from between the wars to explain and convey their emotions. The play happens in real time: While they are performing, sharing and drinking, the wife of the owner is cooking dinner for them after their shift."
All of the whores, he said, happen to have background as cabaret performers in their native countries.
Among the show's song titles are "Rasputin and the Russian Nun," "My Mother's Frying Pan," "Oh, How I Miss the Kaiser," "The Company You Keep" and "The Gypsy in My Purse."
The cast includes Tracie Higgins (as The Duchess), Mary Martello (as The Baroness) and Jilline Ringle (as The Marquesa), with Tony Braithwaite (as The Owner) in his sixth Arden production. The cast also includes Elisa Matthews (as The Cook) and Vince DiMura (as The Piano Player, and the show's musical director).
Designers are Bob Phillips (scenic), Karen Gilmer (costume), James Leitner (lighting) and Nick Rye (sound).
Although Arden presents the world premiere the show, a Nolen-directed "parallel production" will be rehearsed in Philly during the run and then presented by City Theatre in Pittsburgh Nov. 20-Dec. 28. Actress Jilline Ringle and several members of the design team will recreate their Arden Café Puttanesca work for Pittsburgh. Lenora Nemetz is also in the Steel Town company.
Arden tickets range $22-$40. Arden Theatre Company is at 40 N. 2nd Street in Philadelphia.
For information, call (215) 922-1122 or visit www.ardentheatre.org.