There is probably no class of musicians who have been more romantic or romanticized than the Italian tenor.
Today, we have Andrea Bocelli. Before him was Luciano Pavarotti. And before Pavarotti was Enrico Caruso, the Italian who changed the way music was sung, a man who became the first world-wide celebrity singer.
His star blazed brightly until his death at 48, and his final performance, on Christmas Eve in 1920, is the tale impressively told in "Bravo, Caruso!" which opened at Next Act Theatre Friday night.
The play was written by William Luce, who has made a career writing plays about great talents, like John Barrymore, Emily Dickinson and Emily Bronte.
And he has a great subject in Caruso. Taking advantage of the new invention of the phonograph and the marketing genius of RCA Victor, Caruso was bigger than life. He sang everywhere, both with the Metropolitan Opera and other companies. He toured constantly and was a hero in newspapers, magazines, on the radio and on records.
This production is set in the dressing room before Caruso is to sing the role of Eleazar in the opera "La Juive." The only characters are Caruso, played by David Cecsarini, and his faithful and long-time valet Mario Fantini, played by Christopher Tramantana.
The wrapping of the play is a parade of anecdotes of a colorful career told alternately by Caruso and Fantini. Theirs is a relationship that reminds you of an old married couple. They finish each other’s sentences. They bicker easily and with humor. Caruso soars in the ether of stardom while Fantini sails smoothly in the river of service and devotion.
The drama of the tale is the dismissive nature of both men over the severe cough that plagued the tenor.
Caruso had developed a cough, as well as a pain in his back and down his leg, after he sang "Samson and Delilah" on Dec. 4. His doctor treated him for bronchitis, but on Dec. 11, while singing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, blood began to pour from his mouth, and the performance was stopped after just one act.
And then came Christmas Eve.
Caruso is meeting with two reporters (played by the audience) before his performance. At various times, he is wrought with a coughing fit and occasionally finds his handkerchief stained with blood he has coughed up.
Rick Rasmussen designed a handsome dressing room for this production. The chaise lounge in the middle serves as the heart, just as such luxury served as the heart of Caruso’s life.
Cecsarini, who is the producing artistic director at Next Act, displays his incredible array of acting chops in his performance. He embodies a man who knows he’s a star but who has a marvelous sense of humor about him. Caruso loves the joke and the anecdote, and Cecsarini is so realistic that it wouldn’t be surprising to see him break out in an operatic rendition of "Vesti la Giubba."
Tramantana matches the excess of Caruso with the buttoned-up good humor of a man devoted to another man but comfortable in both the abuse and praise he suffers from his boss.
"Bravo, Caruso!" is less a story than a character study of greatness. It is two men, bound together by music and service, and the tale of the end of the world as they know it.
"Bravo, Caruso!" runs through Dec. 6 and information on showtimes and tickets is available here.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
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