Pictured: Mike Wartell and the cast of The Wanderer bring Dion’s songbook to life on stage at the Paper Mill Playhouse. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Daniel / Provided by The Press Room with permission.
MILLBURN, NJ — The Vagabond, a new musical set to music by Dion, has arrived at the Paper Mill Playhouse, and the wait was worth it. The musical jukebox tells the story of Dion DiMucci’s life, from his upbringing on Belmont Avenue in the Bronx to his eventual musical career, which produced such hits as ‘The Wanderer’, ‘Runaround Sue’, ‘King of the New York Streets” and “Abraham, Martin and John.” Throughout the ups and downs of his formative years, Dion remained focused on a personal and professional journey that matched who he was and what he was trying to accomplish with his music. this unwavering approach meant he had run-ins with his parents, record executives, and drug addiction that he struggled to shake off.
The expansive stage at the Paper Mill Playhouse features a stylized version of Belmont Avenue in the Bronx, a Little Italy alternative to Manhattan. Dion grew up amidst the stoops, sidewalks and, most importantly, lampposts of this part of New York. He combined this physical gear in his lyrics and advanced the doo-wop style, which was often sung under the glow of a street lamp. It’s those recognizable songs from the 1950s and 1960s that have catchy hooks, easy-to-digest lyrics, and winning harmony.
After Dion started his band (aptly named the Belmonts), his music began to take off and he found himself propelled from humble beginnings in the Bronx to the national stage. One of the highlights of his career – which would become a chilling cautionary tale – involved a winter tour with the likes of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. Dion, the story goes, ultimately didn’t take the doomed flight that would kill these three musicians, but the tragedy of that situation stayed with him, seemingly, forever.
Recovering from this incident, Dion wanted to continue on his own path and he was tired of the doo-wop style (just like the United States at the time). Despite criticism from his team, he molded himself into a folk artist and changed his musical style and physical appearance. The move was a big risk, but it paid off with a big hit called “Abraham, Martin and John,” which came to life quite emotionally in The Vagabond.
The musical, which lasts just under three hours, is a great spectacle with many characters moving in and out of Dion’s life. There are love interests, relatives, neighbors, fellow musicians and friends. Most of them are solid, positive influences in his life, but some – notably a character named Johnny – are toxic to the young singer.
The cast is near perfect and brings Dion’s songbook to life with verve and liveliness. Mike Wartella gives a star turn as Dion. His vocal chops are up to the challenge, especially with those high-pitched harmonies on early doo-wop songs like “A Teenager in Love.” He also has the dramatic ability to make audiences feel empathy for Dion’s meteoric rise and impending drug-induced death spiral. It’s an effective and engaging performance.
Joli Tribuzio, who actually grew up on Belmont Avenue, and Johnny Tammaro are pretty good at Frances and Pat DiMucci, respectively. They are loving and sometimes stern parents to Dion, and they shower him with adulation and hard-earned wisdom about his life choices. Joey McIntyre (yes, that Joey McIntyre) is enjoyable as Johnny, the devil on Dion’s shoulder, telling him about life’s shortcuts and ways to squander the opportunities presented to him. Kingsley Leggs (Willie Green) is also a wonderful addition to the cast, as is Jasmine Rogers as Melody Green. Christy Altomare (playing Susan, who ends up marrying Dion) has one of the best voices in the cast.
The Vagabond is a fun and poetic journey into the life of a Bronx resident who made him nationally known. The songbook that comes to life in the show is catchy and sing-along-worthy. The scenes captured by director Kenneth Ferrone and writer Charles Messina are beautifully done, especially the opening of “King of the New York Streets.” Some may draw parallels to this other jukebox musical about a group of Italian-American singers, but Dion’s story is unique enough to keep your head held high. The connection to that doomed robbery, the drug overrun, the doo-wop culture of the Bronx in the 1960s – it all makes for dramatic and important storytelling. The songs are pure entertainment and a pleasure to tap your feet. With a little adjustment here and there, The Vagabond is on track for a longer river crossing in New York.
By John Soltes / Editor / [email protected]
The Wanderer continues to perform at the Paper Mill Playhouse until Sunday, April 24. On the music of Dion DiMucci. Book by Charles Messina. Directed by Kenneth Ferrone. With Christy Altomare, Kingsley Leggs, Joey McIntyre, Jasmine Rogers, Jeffrey Schecter, Johnny Tammaro, Joli Tribuzio and Mike Wartella. Duration: 2 hours 50 minutes. Click here for more information and tickets.