Corleone: The Shakespearean Godfather
nytheatre.com review by Eric Winick
August 13, 2006
In darkness, the familiar strains of Nino Rota's theme plays, eliciting scattered chuckles from the audience. The laughs are among the few to be heard during Corleone, an Elizabethan take on Mario Puzo's hallowed tale of familial succession. Not that there's anything wrong with this—as amusing as it is to hear Puzo's lines delivered in iambic pentameter, the most surprising aspect of David Mann's production is how reverently it approaches its source material. And while it will never be accused of being highbrow entertainment, the show's striving for emotional truth would undoubtedly make Mr. Coppola proud, indeed.
Robert Evans is credited with having told Francis Coppola he wanted The Godfather to be so real, one could "smell the spaghetti." Mann's production is on a somewhat smaller scale, but he's cast it with actors that could have been extras in the original. All eschew imitations of the film cast for their own interpretations, and the results pay off in spades. As the story unfolds, and Michael progresses from Army brat to head of the Corleone family, the saga's status as American pop culture's own Shakespearean tragedy is confirmed. All of the key ingredients are there: the aged king, a son reluctant to take the throne, rival factions, multiple stabbings, secret identities, and, of course, soliloquies.
The concessions to Elizabethan convention make a ton of sense: when Michael murders the Turk Sollozzo and corrupt cop McCluskey, he dispatches the gentlemen not with guns, but with poison and sword. Naturally, on the way out, Michael hesitates before dropping the sword. Actor Drew Cortese doesn't look much like Al Pacino, but he's got Michael's body language down, especially when sitting—the way Cortese crosses his legs looks uncannily like Michael. If a bone may be picked, it's writer/director Mann's characterization of Fredo as the Fool. In plays like King Lear and Twelfth Night, The Fool's intelligence tends to rival or surpass that of the main characters, donning an antic disposition to reveal the protagonists' true natures. Not so with Fredo.
Morgan Spector suffers a bit as Vito, but he's following one hell of an act. The fact that Cortese is more successful may be due to the fact that Pacino underplays mightily in the original, making a virtue of his character's blankness. Corleone also benefits from the contributions of Nick Cordileone as consigliere Tom Hagen and Andrew Firda as hapless Fredo, both of whom go beyond caricature to create believable portraits. Ultimately, the lion's share of credit goes to Mann, whose dialogue is convincingly Elizabethan, even when mixing up the original to suit his ends ("Luca Brasi with the fishes sleeps").
One last word: while the send-up may be entirely affectionate, the omission of both Puzo and Coppola from the program is glaring. If there's anything The Godfather teaches us, it's that one must pay one's respects often, and with great deference.