Review: Phoenix Theatre offers loyal fans a poignant look at love for Valentine’s Day

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The Last Romance by Joe DiPietro
Directed by Eric Lewis

The Phoenix Theatre
Upper Level of the Firdale Shopping Plaza
9673 Firdale Ave.

Joe DiPietro’s The Last Romance about two people looking for love in their later years is The Phoenix Theatre’s choice for Valentine’s Day.

Before I sat down and settled myself into The Phoenix Theatre’s cozy space for Friday night’s opening of The Last Romance – and not having read the script written by Joe DiPietro – I wasn’t sure if it was the dame or the dog that drew Ralph to Carol in their late-blooming love for one another.

Artfully Edmonds was surprised – and you will be too, if you have not read the play – at the arc scene that brings Ralph (played by Michael Gene McFadden) and Carol (portrayed by Melanie Calderwood) to their conclusions about love, loneliness and the complications of romance in one’s sunset years.

Not for the faint of heart, this story of reluctance, hope, reality and caring is measured out between laughter and tears, and an understanding of how difficult it can be to find companionship late in life.

The story line takes place in Hoboken, New Jersey – and thanks to the professional skill of voice coach Malya Muth, there was no mistaking that fact. The burst of laughter from the audience upon hearing the yawls and voice pitches that punched the air was proof enough this was the real deal – Hoboken, we had arrived! Congratulations to the cast for mastering the authenticity of New Jersey accents.

Four humans and one little doggy comprise the cast of The Last Romance; and I assure you, in the past three years we have never written about a cast composition such as this one. The doggy is none other than Miss Sadie, making her stage debut as “Peaches,” the naughty canine whose escape from the Hoboken dog park throws Carol into the arms of Ralph for solace, and propels the two into their whirlwind romance. Artfully Edmonds has to hand it to Miss Sadie, as she took in stride being referred to as “that little rat dog.”

Susan Connors plays Ralph’s sister, Rose. The Greek chorus to Ralph’s hapless longing for love and companionship, Rose moves through each scene with a knowing and watchful eye, holding her cards close to her chest and loyally waiting to pick up any pieces of a broken heart, asking at each turn Carol’s intentions regarding her brother. She reminds Carol what a “good catch” Ralph is, as “he can still drive at night!”

A brilliant actress, Connors’ skill was featured in this My Edmonds News feature. Connors brings forward the tragedy of the choices that her character has made with impeccable care. Her performance is heartbreakingly poignant. Who among us doesn’t have regrets about our choices in matters of the heart? How could anyone mess up love as badly as Rose has? DiPietro provides the script, and Connors’ brings her insightful skill as her character’s tough New Jersey exterior melts away — and we are left with a tragic backstory regarding the dark side of hope.

Melanie Calderwood has a complex character to portray in Carol. Calderwood brings her character’s icy demeanor and elegant exterior to life in her first instant on stage, and then allows Carol’s pretense to dissolve entirely as Ralph comforts her after she realizes that Peaches has dashed under the park fence. Another high mark goes to Calderwood for the deep lament of her character, as she describes her marriage and the loneliness she felt after her husband’s stroke “. . . to be half married and half not.“ Calderwood brings such aching genuineness to her role, particularly when her character’s true situation is revealed.

Congratulations to Arin Larson, who managed such authentic costume design. All of her design choices were perfect – but never more so than for Calderwood.

Expect to see a lot more of Griffin Price over the coming years. Playing young Ralph, Price hit all the high notes in his Phoenix Theatre debut; fitting in perfectly with veteran actors who are among Puget Sound’s most followed actors. Price delivers a solid performance in his role as the promising young Italian opera singer (and alter ego) that Ralph could have had, were fateful moments not turned away from his favor.

Veteran actor, Michael Gene McFadden takes the lead in The Phoenix Theatre’s production of “The Last Romance”

This brings us to the actor whose enthusiastic savoring of his role was the make-it-or-break-it element of this production – Michael Gene McFadden. As you sit in the audience for The Last Romance, take an opportunity to closely observe McFadden — you’ll learn a lot about the subtleties of acting. Before you lose yourself in his character, notice the way he flicks imaginary lint away from his impeccable attire, wrinkles his brow, enjoys his own jokes and waits for Carol’s approval. It is pure joy to watch such a natural on stage.

McFadden, with a fever for the stage burning in his veins over the past four-plus decades, embodies his character seamlessly. His impeccable portrayal of an Italian-American whose promising opera career was derailed at the directive of duty and family is both authentic and a tragedy that his character takes in stride, choosing forgiveness over bitterness – another love-quality that the playwright gives his audiences. A full community of fans has followed McFadden’s enthusiastic posts about his role on his Facebook page; scores have wished him well in the run of The Last Romance.

Artfully Edmonds adds its “Bravo!” to the chorus.

Tickets to see this brave look at love, that dares to laugh at our eccentricities are available at this Phoenix Theatre link.

– By Emily Hill

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