‘Runaround Sue’, ‘The Wanderer’, ‘Teenager in Love’, ‘I Wonder Why’, ‘Ruby Baby’, ‘Abraham, Martin and John’, ‘Lovers Who Wander’ and 22 other timeless songs, by the teen idolizes Dion made up the songbook of many people’s lives. Now they come alive in The Vagabond, which opened last night at the Paper Mill Playhouse. After two and a half years, the show had its world premiere. This show is so polished that all I can say is that with a few tweaks, this show belongs on Broadway.
Written by Charles Messina The Vagabond, tells the story of a Bronx kid whose meteoric rise to fame was marred by parental discord, addiction, and angst. Dion (Mike Wartella) befriends a demon who, until he hit rock bottom, was his best friend.
Dion’s guilt also stems from being the one who didn’t get on the plane that killed Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper.
It’s 1959 and we’re in the Bronx. The first act is the music, father Pat DiMucci (Johnny Tammaro) who sees his son as a cash cow, his mother Frances (Joli Tribuzio) who misses the one who died, Susan (Christy Altomare) the daughter he love and Johnny (Joey McIntyre) the demon in sheep’s clothing. We also meet Willie Green (Kingsley Leggs) and his daughter Melody (Jasmine Rogers).
The second act deals with Dion’s 15-year-old heroin addiction, his recovery, and his struggles to get sober, which he does with faith.
The cast and musicians are spectacular. Wartella, is seamless and gives us a layered performance as a man in pain. McIntyre, is fabulous as the devil, you are seduced. His voice is rich in nuances. Mrs. Altomare, shines as the girl who has just as many problems, but loves Dion despite her flaws of unconditional love. Her rendition of “Teenager in Love” is heartbreaking. Leggs and Mrs. Rodgers take their moments in the sun and receive enthusiastic applause.
Kudos also to Jeffrey Schecter as Bob Schwartz and the ensemble, which includes Joe Barbara, Mackenzie Bell, Stephen Cerf, Jordan Dobson, Josh Dunn, Billy Finn, Natalie Gallo, Miguel Jarquin-Moreland, Will Jewett, Michal Kolaczkowski , Jess LeProtto, Janayé McAlpine, Katie Pohlman, Sydney Skye and Gabi Stapula who double and triple several roles.
Directed by Emmy nominee Kenneth Ferrone, the show moves at a good pace, though around 15-20 minutes could be cut. Sarah O’Gleby’s choreography is rigorous and fun and Sonny Paladino’s musical direction, orchestrations and arrangements are out of this world with the drummer at his best.
Tony winner Beowulf Boritt’s stage design is truly stunning. Costume design by Sarah Laux, lighting design by Jake DeGroot, and hair and wig design by Charles G. LaPointe put us all in the era. Only Tony winner John Shivers’ sound design needs tweaking, as Wartella’s lyrics are difficult to understand.
Dion was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989 and this inspiring story will not only entertain but allow you to see through the eyes of addiction.