RIZZO (Theatre Exile): A romp through the Rizzo years

Scott Greer as Frank Rizzo and William Rahill as his father Ralph in Theatre Exile’s RIZZO (Photo credit: Paola Nogueras)

Scott Greer as Frank Rizzo and William Rahill as his father Ralph in Theatre Exile’s RIZZO (Photo credit: Paola Nogueras)

Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear when Frank Rizzo strode the city like he owned it. Even the play’s name hits with a bang: RIZZO. Bruce Graham primarily bases his Theatre Exile commissioned work on Rizzo: The Last Big Man in Big City America by ESPN football correspondent, journalist, and author Sal Paolantonio. The play doesn’t skimp on outsize quotable humor as it takes Frank from beat cop to police commissioner to legendary mayor. Rizzo, instead of chewing the scenery – basically there isn’t any— slam dunks those priceless three-point verbal shots like, “I’m gonna make Attila the Hun look like a faggot.”

Full of ballsy bravado and love for his career and his city, Frank Rizzo will abuse personal loyalties and sacrifice little and big truths for his larger causes. He takes his hits and dishes them out. Under his need for power, glimpses of hurt feelings and actual caring hint at tough talk and thin skin. It was a rough time to be mayor during his tenure (a rough time that he contributed much to), but it was tougher for him later, out of the limelight. This is a great place to position a dramatic character – down  but by no means out, battling, scheming, and plotting a comeback.

I wondered if we could accept terrific actor Scott Greer as Frank Rizzo, a man so many remember well. Greer really wouldn’t be mistaken for Rizzo, except for the girth. But this production isn’t about strict impersonation and a credible Frank emerges. I’m convinced Scott Greer could play Andy Reid or the Sugar Plum Fairy and we’d believe.

Under Joe Canuso’s precision directing, this verbal romp through the Rizzo years gains momentum. Actors have to be ready to jump into the fractured timeline’s next encounter, sometimes in the same breath, sometimes with just the turn of a heel. Presented formally, not South Philly homey, this is a story on a mission with a tight agenda, where aspects of Frank Rizzo’s persona surface through revealing exchanges with all kinds of people. With little interest in character-illuminating heart-to-hearts or cozy kitchen sit downs, the demands of the play force multiple roles into caricature. This is particularly apparent with Amanda Schoonover’s loyal wife, Carmella. A wig and a one-note attitude identify the character. But despite a nominal and invisible row home setting, Rizzo’s home life isn’t a major player here, and Schoonover’s larger role as activist Shelly (Citizens to recall Rizzo) Yanoff offers a little more latitude for her talent.

Damon Bonetti’s fine unnamed ‘Reporter’ shakes off Rizzo’s repeated appeals to his Italian heritage. An integral part of the action, the principled reporter also stands aside from the fray. The conscience of the piece, he serves to hold it all together. Akeem Davis is a dynamic Cecil B. Moore, who butts heads with Rizzo, asserting that, “North Philly was like the dark continent to him.” Davis is also totally buy-able as a proud new police officer. Paul L. Nolan as a quipping Marty Weinberg, Rizzo’s political strategist, projects just the right attitude of intelligence… and indentured servant. Among William Rahill’s many characters is a tremendously authentic father, a veteran cop. Completing the cast, Robert DaPonte is proficient as the polygraph guy and the newsman Stan Bohrman.

Defined lighting and occasional prop pieces lightly suggest locations. Sporadic projections show vintage images including an angry mob during “a hot night in the ghetto,” accompanied by sounds of crowd noise and motorcycles. Michael Kiley’s ambient sound works so well that, like in life, it can disappear as it blends with action.

I wondered if a production of RIZZO would work out of town. Like many Philadelphians I had some small dealings with Mayor Rizzo myself. Lots of people knew the old political players. It’s so Philly-centric. But I believe that while the particulars carry the story along, the concept is universal. In a saga of manipulation, civic love and hubris, one man, who often makes wrong decisions, battles for his city.  A tale as old as time, it could be ancient Rome. At the end of the show, when an audience member whispered, “God, they’re good,” I concurred.
[Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American Street] October 15-November 8, 2015; theatreexile.org.

NOTE: RIZZO fits into a special micro-genre: Mayor Shows. Most are musicals about NYC mayors: Jimmy about “Gentleman Jimmy” Walker, and the Strouse/ Leight satiric musical of Ed Koch’s memoir, Mayor. And Bock & Harnick’s celebrated Fiorella! Then there’s Rob Ford, the Musical: Birth of a Ford Nation about the Toronto mayor who may have smoked crack, and Stu for Silverton, about the transvestite mayor of Willamette Valley, Oregon. RIZZO joins a mayor show tradition that goes back to staged versions of The Mayor of Casterbridge.

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About the author

Kathryn Osenlund, theater and film junkie, is a former National Critics Institute fellow, NEA fellow in Arts Journalism, and member of the American Theater Critics Assn Steinberg and Osborn playwriting awards committee. A Barrymore Award nominator and professor emeritus in communications and theater, Kathryn also writes for NY-based CurtainUp.com. On twitter @theatrendorphin.