By: Darryl Reilly
“An era where paintings mattered…” So, sings a character in the pleasant and quaint Stealing Mona Lisa: A New Musical, which depicts Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece’s theft in 1911. It was stolen from Paris’ Louvre Museum by nationalist struggling Italian artist Vincenzo Peruggia, who wanted it returned to Italy, and brought it there. After an attempted sale to an Italian art dealer two years later, the Mona Lisa was back in France, where Peruggia stood trial, received a light sentence, and died there in obscurity in 1925, at the age of 44.
Playwright Claude Solnik’s imaginative book captures the period’s milieu, has an engaging plot and affectionately drawn characters. Mr. Solnik’s crafty lyrics are matched with composer Gary Edwards’ jaunty accomplished music, resulting in a pleasing and varied score. Music Director Tristan Cano’s rendering of it on piano is joyous. This premiere production has been given an adept small-scale presentation at Theater for the New City’s basement cabaret space. Here, Stealing Mona Lisa has the nostalgic quality of a 1960’s Off-Broadway musical one might have seen at the Village Gate.
Vivacious Tori Jewell spiritedly portrays the Mona Lisa, saucily interacting with the bubbly youthful cast. That the painting is a major character is one of Solnik’s clever devices. The bearded and sunny Steven J. Harris offers a passionate characterization of the idealistic Vincenzo. Mr. Harris’ singing is quite appealing, enabling him to be the show’s ideal centerpiece. The radiant Sid Parker marvelously plays a noble nurse, who is his love interest. Feisty Emily Doran is a hoot as the couple’s scheming best friend. Deadpan Emily Cohen’s stalwart investigating French police officer is a comic delight. Josh Bernard-Kriegl is a wonderfully officious museum director. Teal French-Levine scores as Vincenzo’s fiery lawyer. Molly Loveless is game as the wily art dealer. Clark Mantilla’s dramatic prosecutor is of whimsical umbrage.
Director Jack Ligenza’s artful staging resourcefully makes use of the contained black-walled playing area, with entrances and exits through the auditorium and the theater’s door and staircase. Mr. Ligenza injects as much momentum and visual flair as possible during the swiftly paced scenes. The basic scenic design has flourishes such as jail cell bars. Camila Grunberg’s choreography during group numbers is noteworthy for its glorious precision, yielding several supreme stage pictures, including ones with held-up newspapers and marching picture frames. Costume designer Everett Clark’s fine assemblage of period-seeming garments wittily realizes each character. Ali Walensky’s simple lighting evokes a suitably long-ago sheen, with bold blackouts for scene transitions.
The homespun atmosphere is amplified by the staircase walls to the theater; they are adorned with vintage posters and objects relating to the events. At two and half hours including an intermission, the show arguably could be tauter, though its length does not counter its entertaining achievements. Stealing Mona Lisa: A New Musical is a charming and thoughtful diversion.
Stealing Mona Lisa: A New Musical (through January 8, 2023)
Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit www.theaterforthenewcity.net
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission