'Mystic Pizza' is topped with '80s hits

By Barbara Schuler, Newsday


“No pressure,” deadpans Emily Rose Lyons. She doesn’t mean it.


The Dallas-born actress plays Daisy Arujo in the musical adaptation of “Mystic Pizza,” running through Oct. 30 at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport. In case you forgot, that’s the role that made Julia Roberts a huge star. And she’s the first thing people remember when you talk “Mystic Pizza,” says Lyons.


“It’s a lot of responsibility,” she says. “I love this character and want to do it justice, not just for fans but for me.”


“We were not looking for carbon copies,” says director Igor Goldin. Instead, we tried to capture “the essence of the original characters. We kept our eye on certain personality traits. … I think we did quite a good job, we’ve been able to do our show with a nod to the original.”

“Maybe it’s the fiery redhead energy,” says Lyons, who graduated from Brigham Young University and did the international tour of “Legally Blonde.” She thinks the creative team sensed a “playful edge” similar to Daisy’s. “She’s not mean, but she has an attitude and opinion on things. We both have similar wit in that regard.”


The musical version of the cult movie classic has been in the works for awhile. In 2019, it was announced that Melissa Etheridge was writing the score, but by 2021 that idea had morphed into a jukebox musical with pop songs of the ‘80s from artists including Etheridge, Cyndi Lauper and Long Island’s Pat Benatar, Debbie Gibson and Joan Jett. The musical had its world premiere last September at the Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine, with writers making tweaks up until July for the Engeman production.


GIRLS JUST WANT TO HAVE POWER


The musical differs somewhat from the movie in its portrayal of the three women at it center — Daisy; her brainy sister, Kat; and their friend Jojo, all waitresses at Mystic Pizza. “What you’re seeing here are three very strong women who are on the verge of change,” says Goldin, “one that’s going to completely change the trajectory of their lives.”


In an interview before the show opened in Maine, writer Sandy Rustin said that while it was important to maintain the rom-com feel of the movie, she was more interested in portraying “the ambition of these three girls beyond their relationships with men. Female friendship and empowering other women is certainly a focus.”


Goldin notes that in the musical its clearer that the women are permitted to make their own decisions. “Yes, they make mistakes, and they fix those mistakes,” he says. “They ultimately make the decisions that are the best for them.” “It is a female power show,” says Michelle Beth Herman, who plays Jojo. There’s some role reversal, says Herman, who grew up in Commack and says performing at Engeman is a “cool full circle moment for me.” Usually the man doesn’t want to be with the girl, says Herman, who performed in the national tour of “Les Miserables.” Jojo, who has been with her boyfriend/fiance since she was in kindergarten, doesn’t know if she’s ready to settle down, the actress explains. “Jo takes her power and realizes that she loves this man, but it’s her choice,” Herman says.


The show is also about finding home, says Herman. “JoJo is from Mystic, she wants to stay in Mystic, she sees a life in Mystic,” she says. “She has dreams and she’s ambitious. She wants to take over Mystic Pizza some day when the owner retires.”


Kat, on the other hand, is ready to move on. “Kat is the one who’s about to move away,” says Brooke Sterling, who’s performing the role. Kat is “really brainy, she’s going to Yale on a scholarship and truly has her life ahead of her,” says Sterling. As she prepares to leave, “we see her grapple with the looming nostalgia that she has for this town. It’s a massive transitional period in her life.”


THEY LOVE ROCK 'N' ROLL


While playing these strong, ambitious women is at the heart of their performances, all three actresses say there’s great joy in performing the ‘80s music.


Sterling, who grew up in Miami, remembers singing many of these songs in the car with her dad. “It’s my parent’s music,” says Sterling, whose big number is Gibson’s “Lost In Your Eyes.” “It’s thrilling to sing, and it will be exciting to see how it translates to a 2022 audience.”


“There are so many good songs,” says Herman, whose favorites include her big numbers like “Take My Breath Away” (performed by Berlin in the 1986 film “Top Gun”), and ”I Think We’re Alone Now,” a No. 1 hit for Tiffany. And there are songs she wishes she was singing, notably Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” and Lauper’s “True Colors.”


The music “is a blast,” says Lyons. “Every scene has a new song, and when it comes to ‘80s rock music, the female voices of that time are so powerful … I feel honored to sing these songs.” Goldin feels like the music “take us to another place … the songs celebrate the poignant human connection.”


As Engeman artistic director Richard Dolce points out, “the songs in the show are literally the soundtrack of my teenage years,” adding that they “elevate the show and make for a fantastic night of theater.”


The music also stands in for one of the movie’s most memorable moments when Daisy, furious because she thinks her boyfriend is out with someone else, dumps a load of fish in his car. Instead, says Goldin, “we have an iconic song to replace an iconic moment.” Lyons sings Etheridge’s “I’m the Only One” with the lyrics “Tonight you told me that you ache for someone new,’ cause some other woman is lookin’ like something that might be good for you.”


Goldin says he likes the moment better in the musical. “It leaves both of them on equal footing, which is always more interesting.” Lyons says fans shouldn’t be worried, she believes the song is “an acceptable equivalent to dumping fish in a Porsche. It’s powerful, it lands.”

Other than being a pure nostalgia trip, all the actresses feel the show will be meaningful to the audience. “It’s empowerment,” says Herman. “I think the audience will walk out feeling stronger.” Sterling believes the show is so good because it feels current. “If we can sit here in rehearsals and know exactly what this feels like as a young woman today, it’s going to ring true for audiences.”


“My main goal is to just entertain the audiences and give them a great night,” says Lyons. It would be great if they “left feeling a little better than when they walked in.”


NO MATTER HOW YOU SLICE, HE'S THE 'PIZZA' GUY


Not to diminish the importance of pizza parlors in Connecticut, but we take our pies pretty seriously on Long Island. The ones consumed in the John W, Engeman Theater's production of “Mystic Pizza” will come fresh from PieZano in Northport, and owner Gianni Vigliotti is excited to participate. “We are homegrown and proud to support the community,” he says.

The restaurant hosted the cast for dinner recently and Vigliotti schooled some of the actors in the fine art of making pizza. He even shared the recipe for his secret sauce.


PieZano’s loyal patrons needn’t panic — the show will probably only need one pizza per performance, with real slices artfully hidden in plentiful prop pizzas. “Food is always tricky,” says Jennifer Collester, director of production at Engeman. “As much as we want real food moments, we always want to protect actors from spills.”


That means there won’t be a repeat of the parody that aired in the 2007 season of “30 Rock,” when actress Jane Krakowski’s weight gain was blamed on her appearance in a fictional “Mystic Pizza” musical that required eating four slices every performance.


“I don’t think I get to eat any pizza,” says actress Emily Rose Lyons, who plays Daisy in the show. “I just serve it … but I’ll eat plenty after.”






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