Valentino the Musical

How can your heart not go out to the valiant people behind "Valentino the Musical"? By Off-Off-Broadway standards, the show shapes up as an epic undertaking, tracing the life of legendary silent screen star Rudolph Valentino, whose death in 1926 at age 31 sent the world's women into frenzied mourning.

Composer Charles Mandracchia and his book and lyrics co-writer, Francesca DiGiosa, say they've been working on the show for 12 years. A showcase was presented in 1998, and a CD has been recorded. Seeking further funding, this new production, directed by the writers, was hit with calamity when, days before previews, sets and costumes were lost in a warehouse fire. But improvisation prevailed, costumes were pieced together, and the production, going on as scheduled, looks surprisingly good. What emerges is the promise of a lively conventional book musical. But it is crying out for some visionary conceptualist, such as a Michael Bennett, to give it drive and shape. Accompanied by straightforward but graceful lyrics, Mandracchia's score embraces a wealth of styles: jaunty vaudeville turns, big ballads (some quite lovely, some bland), and oratoriolike pieces attempting -- not always successfully -- to fill in exposition not covered in the competently crafted book.

The youthful, 21-member non-Equity cast has been molded into a smart ensemble, tackling with aplomb complex choral singing, multiple roles, and the plentiful choreography by Genevieve Cleary and Yoshi Yano.

As Valentino, Robert Lewandowski sings well and projects an affable sincerity, but lacks the smoldering sensuality Valentino was known for. Kelly Cooper convinces as Natacha Rambova, the big love of Valentino's life, whose artistic pretensions nearly wrecked his career.

The company is filled with big voices. Some standouts include Piper Pack, who gives Valentino's mother a rich soprano; Holli Banks as studio executive June Mathis, a longtime Valentino champion; and Richard Koons as Valentino's Irish-brogued bodyguard and other assorted characters.