The Paper Mill Playhouse is dark and funeral-like quiet. All of a sudden, as loud and thumping as it can be comes the music.
Whoa oh- whoa-
They are the opening doo-wop, hepp-hepp notes to the hit Dion song "Runaround Sue." The audience roars.
It is the triumphant beginning to a wonderful, spirited new musical The Wanderer, based on the life of rock and roll superstar Dion DiMucci, that opened at the Paper Mill last week.
The Paper Mill Playhouse, in Millburn, has produced many terrific plays over the years, but few can match this one, with book by Charles Messina, choreography by Sarah O’Gleby and deftly directed by Kenneth Ferrone. Music arrangement are by Sonny Paladino. The striking revolving urban sets are by Beowulf Boritt.
The Wanderer is a marvelous chapter of rock history and, like The Jersey Boys, also a solid no-holds-barred look at the life of Dion and the Belmonts, with all of their ups and down, all full of his failings as well as triumphs and, at times, his pretty troubled existence.
Everybody remembers the music of Dion DiMucci ("Runaround Sue," "The Wanderer," "A Teenager in Love," "Abraham, Martin and John," "Donna the Prima Donna," "Lonely Teenager")
The doo wop group from da Bronx exploded on the music scene in the late 1950s (I’m from da Bronx. Philistines and politically correct progressives will say “the Bronx.” but folks, it’s “da Bronx.”)
Dion, played magnificently by the gifted singer and actor Mike Wartella, grew up in the age of doo wop, but changed his singing style and songwriting through the years. I think his most memorable hit, played on radio for years, and today, too, was "Abraham, Martin and John," a sad, slow tribute to the lives of four great Americans who were assassinated. In the musical, the song received the longs and loudest applause of any number.
The musical has its truly forlorn moments, such as the deaths of Buddy Holley, Richie Valens and J.P. Richardson (the Big Bopper) in a plane crash in the winter of 1959. Dion was supposed to be on the plane in which they died, but refused to pay the $36 ticket fare, protesting that the fare was as much as his parents paid a month for their Bronx apartment. He was really shaken. There are other somber scenes about the time he was a drug addict and nearly lost his wife Susan because of it.
There are numerous emotional touches to the musical. He has a longtime “friend,” Johnny, who served as his advisor and conscience. The character is fake, a dream that slid through his imagination.
There is a nice little love story built into the play that starts when he meets a girl who just moved into his neighborhood from Vermont who has a deep dark secret. There is an elderly man who used to be in music himself and remained a bit of a mystery. He had a young daughter who helps Dion’s wife get through his addiction.
Dion spent many years with the Belmonts, named after a street in the Bronx. His run-down neighborhood is a character in the play itself and underscore Dion’s poverty upbringing in a rough spot (young men are seen beaten up with clubs).
Dion loved to talk about the old neighborhood. I saw him perform in Atlantic City in the 1980s and he told the audience this great story. He had made a lot of money and moved to a home on one of the waterways in Florida. His neighbors there warned him not to swim in the waterway because it was infested with alligators. It was dangerous.
“Dangerous?” he told them.
“I was born in the Bronx and we went swimming in the East River. The waterway here is dangerous? Hey, the East River was so dangerous that alligators were scared to swim in it.”
The music in the play is shake-your-head-left and right terrific, but the strength of the play is Dion’s personal story and the people who help him through his problems – his wife Susan Butterfield, played by the talented and laid back Christy Altomare (beautiful voice), his dad Pat (Johnny Tammaro), mom Frances (Joli Tribuzio), “friend” Johnny (Miguel Jarquin-Moreland), record company president Bob Schwartz ( Jeffrey Schecter), Monsignor Pernicone ( Joe Barbara) Willie Green (Kingsley Leggs) and his daughter Melody (Jasmine Rogers).
The Wanderer is NOT a traditional jukebox musical, and most of them fail, but a scorching drama about friendship, the music world and one man’s harrowing battle against drug addiction.
It IS a time trip back to the good old days (which for many people were not so good) and a tremendous Dion music party. Bop bop, bop!
A story: I bought Dion records when I was 14 and starred to play them on our large, brand new stereo console. My mother freaked. She told me I could not play “that junk” on her big shining stereo play. “That’s for Frank Sinatra,” she said.
My father saved the day. He bought me a small, inexpensive record player that I took to the basement and, unheard by mom, put on my Dion music and all alone and happy as a lark, I danced to it, fingers snapping and arms flying through the air.
The Wanderer is long and a good 15 or 20 minutes could be cut from it, and it drags in places, but, overall, it is titanic. The best part is the end, when the entire audience joins the cast in singing a throaty, blissful, hand clapping, foot-stomping rendition of "The Wanderer."
It was a moment to remember.
The Wanderer is at the Paper Mill Playhouse (22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ) through April 24. Click here for tickets.
Photos by Jeremy Daniel