Rizzo at Philadelphia Theatre Company – A Review
I don’t usually see a play more than once over a short period of time but nationally-known Philly playwright Bruce Graham’s play “Rizzo” – based on Inquirer reporter Sal Paolantonio’s 1993 bio of former police chief and mayor Frank Rizzo as an exception. I saw the workshop reading in the South Philly garage that Theatre Exile calls home in 2014, where an opinionated attended almost came to fisticuffs with Graham . Last year – almost one year to the day – I saw (and reviewed here) the World Premiere of the play, presented by Exile (and directed by Exile’s Founding Director, Joe Canuso) at the small performance space at the Christ Church Neighborhood House). The play, again starred one of Philly’s most talented actors, Scott Greer. As I said in my review (which I’ll add below) this was a run that was sure to sell out – and they couldn’t extend it. Many folks did not get to see it.
This week I saw the play for the THIRD time; this time it was in the larger – and more comfortable – Suzanne Roberts Theatre and was “presented by” the Philadelphia Theatre Company (which owns the space. Canuso was back as the Director and Greer as Rizzo (though this time -who recently lost 80 pounds! – uses his acting techniques to make him appear like the “larger than life” former mayor. The stage is much larger and has a bit more scenery. Scenic Designer Colin McIlvaine uses rear and side wall projections to fill the background and it works.
The play is still two-acts and just under two hours.
What is really eerie is that, at the end of Act 1, Graham quotes Rizzo (20 years ago!), in discussing his run for mayor as saying “We’re gonna make Philadelphia great again!”. (I wonder if current presidential candidate Donald Trump was watching Rizzo back then.
The weeknight performance I saw this time was nearly full so tickets are going well. Most there were seeing it for the first time. Because PTC owns the theater space they were able to extend the run until October 23rd. This is not a play that will travel well outside the Delaware Valley, so this may be a rare chance to see it (and Greer’s bravura performance). So, again, I’ll urge you to “act soon”
I’d also like to mention the recent release on DVD of the 1977 documentary by Robert Mugge on Rizzo’s career and run for mayor: Amateur Night at City Hall. It’s the perfect companion piece to the PTC/Exile production. You can find it on Amazon and other similar outlets.
And now, here is my 2015 review of the original Theatre Exile production in October 2015:
Usually when I write a review of a play that I think folks will enjoy, I end my review by saying something like “Go get tickets and see the show”. This time, I’m going to start my review with that phrase, and add the words “act soon!”.
The newest play by Philly’s own world-renowned playwright Bruce Graham is titled Rizzo and is based on news/sports reporter Sal Paolantonio’s book Rizzo: the Last Big Man in Big City America. It opened last night to an overflow audience at the performance space on the 4th floor of the Christ Church Neighborhood House in Old City. In attendance were the REAL LIFE equivalents of four of the characters in Graham’s historical play. The title character’s son Frank (Franny) Rizzo Jr., campaign manager and adviser Marty Weinberg, activist (and the power behind the “no third term” recall, Shelly Yanoff and Jim Turner, the mayor’s black bodyguard. (Former councilmen Frank DiCicco and Jim Kenney, the latter now a candidate for Mayor himself) were there two and told some great stories before the performance.
But, since those “celebrities” will not be at future performances (at least in real life), I’ll now move on to the play and the production. Usually a playwright starts from scratch with dialogue for his or her characters. In the case of Rizzo, Grahams job was to take all the real words and speeches by Rizzo over his years as a p9olice officer, police commission, two term Mayor of the city, and even his daily three-hour radio talk show, and mold them into a portrait a man that everyone had an opinion about – whether positive or negative. At the staged reading of the play last year (when it was a one act play), one patron from South Philly literally accosted Graham after the show because he felt it was a “hatchet job”. Truth be told, Graham who is also a South Philly resident, did smooth out some of the roughness for the final product – now presented with an intermission. The “libes” that get the most reaction are quotes from the “Big Bambino” himself. I lived in Philly during the “Rizzo Years” and remember many of these lines from TV news reports. There are way too many malapropisms to share here (and spoil the enjoyment of the show). Like the late Yogi Berra, Rizzo was always “quotable”. Rizzo would spout off lines like “There is only one way to keep law and order – and that’s with fear”. The script is full of these. The thread that holds the story together is the Paolantino character – played by Damon Bonetti. The centerpiece, however is one of Philly’s greatest actors, Scott Greer, in the title role. Green came to Philly after Rizzo died so he never really knew the man. He watched video and film footage to learn Rizzo’s body language and speech pattern. No he doesn’t wear any makeup to make him look like the former Mayor, He still looks like Scott Greer. But, who cares? He is large and has the “attitude”.
There are 21 other characters in the play, including well-known names like Ralph Rizzo (the Mayor’s Dad), Carmella (Frank Sr.’s wife), civil rights activist Cecil B. Moore, and union chief Earl Stout. These roles are handled by a core of five actors (with Amanda Schoonover portraying the four females.).
Director Joe Canuso chose to keep the set simple. There is a carpet, two chairs, and a lectern. That’s all the furniture on the set. A projection screen is used to show relevant images, such as newspaper heading or the infamous press photo a group of young black men being lined up against a wall to be strip-searched.
This is a play for and about Philly and, as such will be of great interest to anyone who lived in the Delaware Valley in the latter half of the 20th century. I’m certain that many shows will sell out (the previews all did) and the number of seats – while more than Theatre Exile’s South Philly venue, Studio X, is not large. I’m told the show much end on Sunday, November 8th and so, I encourage you to get seats early and not be disappointed. As much as Graham’s one-man play The Philly Fan is a Philadelphia tradition, I can see Rizzo being revived here again (at a time when Greer has time in his busy schedule to return as “The Mayor”).