Café Puttanesca premiered at the Arden 15 years ago, with a cast that included local funnyman Tony Braithwaite. Braithwaite now runs Act II Playhouse in Ambler, where the musical by Michael Ogborn and Terrence J. Nolen returns in a new staging through June 16. I can think of no other reason beyond that association for dusting off this dreary bagatelle.
Most people know puttanesca from the pasta. The word means something close to “prostitute” in English, and one legend suggests that women of the night invented the dish as a quick snack between trysts. The name more likely refers to the bold, strong flavor of the sauce, created by a tangy trinity of anchovies, capers and olives. Yet zest is exactly what’s missing here – for a show about sex, it’s as limp as over-boiled linguine.
The action centers around three hookers having one last good time together in a seedy Amsterdam club. (Dirk Durossette’s set looks postcard picturesque, not the rundown dive it should be.) In the morning, the Baroness (April Woodall) will leave the trade to marry an American tourist. She and her colleagues, the Marquesa (Eleni Delopoulos) and the Duchess (Jessica Riloff), while away the time reminiscing about the ups and downs of life in the oldest profession.
The intermission-less 90 minutes resembles a cabaret more than a coherent musical; Nolen’s libretto exists solely to facilitate transitions from one number to the next. Director and choreographer Dann Dunn does little to arrange the vignettes into a cohesive whole, though he supplies some spirited footwork for the ladies.
A few of Ogborn’s songs allow for character development – we learn that the Baroness is a dominatrix par excellence – but his music and lyrics are mostly forgettable. There’s plenty you’ll be grateful to forget, such as the lame limericks that keep spouting forth.
Delopoulos flaunts a sultry voice that suits up-tempo numbers and ballads alike. Woodall’s reedy soprano has seen better days, but the wear-and-tear works for a character who’s been around the block, literally and figuratively. (Her subtle treatment of the lachrymose “We’ll Meet Again” is the production’s highlight.) Riloff seems a smidge young for her role, but she compensates with charm and an exaggerated English accent.
Their combined talents occasionally lift the material, but you don’t lose the sense of a show that wants to be edgy and wholesome all at once. This comes through in an underdeveloped subplot involving the café’s cheery owner (Zachary J. Chiero) and his hot-tempered wife (Eileen Cella, whose talents are entirely wasted), who bicker and banter without much bite.
Natalia de la Torre’s costumes range from flattering to unfortunate. Delopoulos gets a stylish pair of palazzo pants, while Woodall is saddled with a dowdy black frock. Woodall and Riloff must also contend with chunky wigs that bear as much resemblance to human hair as Café Puttanesca resembles a satisfying entertainment – which is to say barely, if at all.