Mario Lanza’s film career lasted barely 10 years. Yet by the time he died at the age of 38, Lanza had achieved enormous fame as a film star and opera singer. This despite the fact that his film output had been relatively small and his actual appearances in opera remarkably few
But Lanza possessed a charismatic personality, and a remarkably beautiful tenor voice, which was often compared with that of Caruso. At the time of his death, his movie career had already started to wan as a result of problems caused by his fluctuating weight, and tempestuous personality, and even though there was a perfectly plausible explanation for the cause of his death, at the time, conspiracy theories as to the real cause, continue to fascinate more than 50 years after the event.
Phil Scott and Blake Bowden have plugged into the Lanza legend to create a captivating theatrical cabaret in which they sketch, almost as a mini-musical documentary, the broad details of Lanza’s life.
In a series of short, sharp scenes, in which Bowden portrays Lanza, and with Phil Scott playing everyone else, they trace through Lanza’s career, from his early singing lessons, through the Hollywood Bowl concert which led to his meeting with Hollywood mogul, Louis B. Mayer, and his first film. They follow the rise and rise of Lanza’s remarkable career to the events which lead him to leave Hollywood and attempt to pursue his career in Italy, where he suddenly died.
Throughout the journey, Bowden, sings a generous selections of songs associated with Lanza, among them With a Song In My Heart, The Loveliest Night of the Year, and Because You’re Mine” as well as operatic showpieces including Verdi’s stirring La Donna Mobile and the gentle Puccini aria, Your Tiny Hand is Frozen.
One of the country’s fastest rising young male music theatre stars, Blake Bowden came to Canberra directly from the national tour of Fiddler on the Roof, in which he played Perchik, opposite Anthony Warlow’s Tevye. Prior to Fiddler, Bowden has played leading roles in series of high profile musicals including the Cat Stevens musical Moon Shadow, as well as South Pacific for Opera Australia, West Side Story, Blood Brothers and Dirty Dancing.
Mario provides a superb showcase to display the many talents of the personable Bowden. Besides demonstrating that he’s equally at home crooning a beautifully phrased version of Jerome Kern’s They Didn’t Believe Me or delivering a bravura, full-throated rendition of Puccini’s Nessun dorma, Bowden also proved to be a fine actor. His characterisation deftly captured Lanza’s reputed arrogance, as well as the charm and charisma which propelled Lanza into International superstardom. He also threw in a few nifty dance steps that Lanza may have envied.
Phil Scott’s contribution is no less impressive. Using a variety of wigs, scarves and hats, Scott created a succession of wickedly tongue-in-cheek characters including Louis B. Mayer, a personal trainer, a New York singing teacher, a German conductor and even a disgruntled Mario Lanza fan who loudly disputed the veracity of some of the facts mentioned in the performance.
On top of all that, Scott accompanied each of the songs superbly, utilising every inch of the Steinway keyboard to provide sparkling, florid backings to approximate the sound of a vast MGM orchestra for Romberg’s Drink, Drink, Drink, or with great sensitivity for Giordani’s lovely Caro mio ben.
Mario – The stories and music of Mario Lanza is presented without interval and runs a neat 60 minutes. It’s already been seen at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival and in a season at the Hayes Theatre. It’s a little gem which is currently touring, so if it comes your way – don’t miss it!
MARIO – The stories and music of Mario Lanza
Courtyard Studio – Canberra Theatre Centre, London Circuit, Canberra
Performances: 19 – 21 May 2016
Image: Phil Scott and Blake Bowden in Mario – photo by Mark Baxter
Review: Bill Stephens