It’s hard to find someone who isn’t familiar with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but have you heard about Romeo & Bernadette: A Musical Tale of Verona and Brooklyn? In this Off-Broadway spoof, Romeo (Nikita Burshteyn) somehow finds himself in 1960s Brooklyn, mistaking the lovely but foul-mouthed Bernadette (Anna Kostakis) for his Juliet. Playing at Theater 555 in New York until June 26, Romeo & Bernadette is directed and choreographed by Justin Ross Cohen. The production’s book and lyrics were written by Mark Saltzman, who adapted the music from classic Italian melodies.
Anna Kostakis portrays Bernadette, the daughter of a crime boss. She played Bernadette right before the pandemic at the A.R.T./NY. We chatted on the phone about pivoting during the pandemic and coming back to Bernadette’s story.
A Time Travel Icebreaker
Since there’s a clash of time periods in Romeo & Bernadette, I asked Kostakis where she would like to travel in time if she could. She came up with two interesting answers. First would be the Little House on the Prairie period (1870s-1890s) because she was “obsessed” with the series when she was younger. “I always felt so bad because back then, a penny meant that Laura Ingalls could get anything she wanted at the store,” she said. “When I was little, I always wanted to go with whatever few dollars I had as a kid and give it to the Ingalls family so they could have a good Christmas.”
A close second for Kostakis would be World War II, which also intrigues her. “I wouldn’t be in battles, just be a fly on the wall during that time period.”
Helping at the Family Restaurant and Staying Current on Skills
With Romeo & Bernadette, Kostakis made her debut in New York City in 2020, right after graduating from Nazareth College. Unfortunately, because of the pandemic, she and many others across the theater industry needed to switch gears while theaters were closed. She returned home to Upstate New York for what was familiar.
“I’m a fifth generation to a family diner and candy store. I was very lucky on that to fall back on, number one, and then also to [be able] to help out my family. Every industry had to adapt and change. We went from dine-in experiences to takeout with a more online presence in our restaurant.”
Kostakis observed how supportive and close the community was during the darkness and sadness. “There was so much beauty with people coming and getting chocolate to send to the hospitals and first responders. It was moving throughout the hard parts of the pandemic.”
While working at the restaurant, she kept current on her skills so that she’d be ready when the time came for theaters to reopen. “We were open but there weren’t any customers inside, so I was doing a ballet class on my computer. I started teaching voice lessons when things started opening up again at my old studio.”
On Coming Back to Romeo & Bernadette
Two years later, Kostakis is back in New York City, taking up her leading role once again alongside her cast mates, who all returned for this new production at Theater 555. She loves that this musical comedy contains characters grounded in reality and easy to connect with.
“Bernadette really resonated with me because I share a lot of her personality traits, her zest for fashion, and being a little hotheaded and thinking she knows it all. She is humbled by others, and at the end of the day, listens to the people she’s close to.”
Lessons About Dating
Kostakis believes that Romeo & Bernadette offers valuable insights about dating and romance. “The biggest takeaway is that chivalry is not dead.”
Romeo is a great teacher about best practices for dating, especially in the lessons he gives to new friend Dino (Michael Notardonato). “Romeo teaches Dino how to talk to a girl kindly and woo her in a way that isn’t misogynistic or off-putting.”
These best practices even have an impact on Bernadette’s father, Sal (Carlos Lopez). “[Sal] gets overwhelmed with love and is totally different with his wife. The wife is so happy he’s like a new man. There is still a lot of true love out there. There are a lot of good guys and you have to look for them.”
Music as a Bridge in Romeo & Bernadette
Kostakis likes Mark Saltzman’s lyrics and his reimaginings of classic Italian melodies. “Verona gets melded into 1960s Brooklyn. Music is the biggest bridge [over] that gap with the story. Of course, with Romeo being physically in Brooklyn, he’s the little spice of Verona that gets trickled out throughout the show.”
A musical number that she likes from the show is “Yes, That’s Love,” where Bernadette and other characters give their take on what love is. “It’s a very upbeat song. The number really grew from two years ago… The show doesn’t really have to change a lot in the way that we reimagined and tweaked some things. It’s such a number that I really like.”
Advice for Young Theater Professionals
In reflecting on the last two years, Kostakis’s advice for young actors and creatives is to remember that everything happens for a reason. “Many things happened that were very out of our control. That teaches someone to let things align, trust that, and trust that the universe will set you on this path. Things are looking up again, at least for me. I think a good takeaway is to stay positive through it all.”