Moroccan roll

Great cast of Chico characters inhabits iconic Casablanca bar

Time goes by for Sam (Jonathan Richman, foreground) and Rick (Roger Montalbano) at Cafe American.

Time goes by for Sam (Jonathan Richman, foreground) and Rick (Roger Montalbano) at Cafe American.

Photo Courtesy of blue Room theatre

Rick’s Cafe American shows Thurs.-Sat., 7:30 p.m., through May 23, at the Blue Room.
Tickets: $15-$18
Blue Room Theatre

Of all the gin joints in all the world’s theatrical bars, there is none so iconic as Rick’s Café Américain, the main setting of the classic 1942 Bogart and Bergman film, Casablanca. And in Chico, perhaps the most analogous bar—in terms of its gin-joint charm and the theater personalities who operate and frequent the place—is Duffy’s Tavern.

And as director, set designer and script co-adapter Amber Miller (with Joe Hilsee) tells us in the program notes for the world premiere of Rick’s Cafe American, it’s in Duffy’s where, “some evening, well over a year ago, we got drunk and started talking.” The idea born at the bar was to do a version of Casablanca featuring local characters playing their big-screen counterparts.

With Duffy’s co-owner Roger Montalbano cast—some might say typecast—as the “I stick my neck out for nobody” nightclub owner Rick Blaine, I expected to get a somewhat nonchalant yet debonair sense of the character that Bogart played with smoldering emotional intensity. And Montalbano delivered, though a bit stiffly in the opening-night (May 7) performance.

A huge casting coup for this local adaptation was in the role of Sam—a black piano player in the movie—who is played here by world-renowned singer/songwriter Jonathan Richman (listed in the program as Michel DeMenilmontant but properly credited on the cast’s wall photos). Richman, who now lives in Chico, provides low-volume incidental French-accented guitar music throughout as well as one featured number sung in French, in addition to a touching rendition of the film’s iconic theme song, “As Time Goes By.”

For those few unfamiliar with the movie, the basic setup is pretty straightforward: Early in WWII, the French-Moroccan port of Casablanca served as a departure point for refugees fleeing the predations of Nazi forces in Europe. Rick’s Café is a hub for the sale of black market “letters of transit,” which allow a person to travel to Lisbon, Portugal, from where transit to the United States is still possible. At the time of the story, Victor Laszlo (played here by Chad Lewis), a notorious fugitive Czech Resistance leader, has come to Casablanca and the nightclub accompanied by his beautiful wife, Ilsa (Hilary Tellesen), to obtain such passage, unaware that some years previous Rick and Ilsa had had a passionate and loving affair in Paris, from where they had to split up and flee when the Nazis occupied that city.

When Ilsa discovers that Rick is the proprietor of the nightclub by recognizing the musician Sam, her affection and passion for him are seemingly rekindled, and a love triangle complicated by political intrigue ensues.

The somewhat jarring age difference of the two theatrical leads is playfully referenced in the script by Ilsa’s comment that when they met in Paris she was still wearing braces to straighten her teeth. But despite this comic element to her role, Tellesen makes her character’s romantic dilemma believable in her scenes with Rick, Sam and her not-quite-cuckolded husband, Victor. Although, in this adaptation, Rick’s iconic “Here’s looking at you, kid” may provoke a laugh not implied in the original intention of the line.

The unfolding of the story requires a fairly large supporting cast, and several of the players are Duffy’s as well as local stage veterans. Dave “12-Pack” Sorensen properly oozes repellent “charm” in the role previously owned by Sydney Greenstreet as competing saloon owner Signor Ferrari. Jason Donnelly takes on the role—and vocal mannerisms—made famous by Peter Lorre as the sleazy-seeming but possibly heroic smuggler and resistance fighter Ugarte. And Hilsee brings to life Capt. Louis Renault, the unashamedly and comically corrupt French chief of police with whom Rick forms “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Adapting (or attending) a classic movie transposed to the live stage might be a challenge for those not driven by nostalgia, but experiencing how the Blue Room crew brings Casablanca and Rick’s Cafe to life—with touches of romance, intrigue and humor nicely woven together—is actually a lot of fun.