PROVIDENCE, RI – On a recent weeknight, a cast of about 20 performers rehearses in the Mathewson Street United Methodist Church in downtown Providence. But as some of the actors explain their roles, you can tell this isn't just any musical.
"My name is Mark Calozzi, and I play the role of Joe Barros, the number one hit man."
"My name is Talia Triangolo. I'm playing the lead cumatta and the prosecutor in the courtroom scene."
"My name is Tom Gleadow, and I'm playing Don Marco, the godfather, the big shot."
For the uninitiated, a "cumatta" is Italian slang for a mistress. Arlene Violet is familiar with these types of underworld characters from her time as Rhode Island's top law enforcement officer. Her election back in 1984 made her the first female attorney general in the US. Since then federal prosecutions have devastated La Cosa Nostra, but Violet says the Mob mindset remains relevant.
"In many ways, I feel the story of organized crime in Rhode Island is a paradigm for other kinds of crime," she says.
She points to the "I know a guy who knows a guy" culture that makes some Rhode Islanders unwilling to speak out against corrupt politicians.
"People are reluctant to say anything negatively because they remember they did a favor or two in the neighborhood," she says.
She sees a parallel to organized crime and the recent sentencing for bribery and extortion of three former North Providence town councilors how residents could think their sentences are too harsh because the councilors helped people.
"And I felt the same thing is true of the Mob," she says. "And I wanted to make sure that people understood the grip that a Raymond Patriarca, for example, had on the neighborhood, because of a lot of good things that he in fact did."
Patriarca is the former Rhode Island Mob boss who controlled organized crime in New England for decades before his death nearly 30 years ago. Actor Tom Gleadow plays Patriarca's fictional alter-ego Don Marco in the musical.
"Wielding power is great when people actually do what you want them to do, so I absolutely love playing a guy with that much power," says Gleadow. "It's been such a joy, learning how to be kind of easy about that and kind of mean about it as well."
His character is the patriarch of a Mob family with problems. For starters, Don Marco's son Renaldo doesn't want to go into the family business. Violet says that situation isn't unique to organized crime.
"I mean, how many fathers out there are disappointed (laughs) that their sons won't take over the business?" he says.
Renaldo is also an aspiring opera singer who, unbeknownst to most of those around him, is gay. In this scene, Renaldo explains his reluctance to come out of the closet by telling the story of what happened to a high-ranking member of the local Mob.
"Seems he had a wife and a girlfriend, but was frequenting a sex club in Jersey. Couple would go in, make sure it looked like a couples-only place, but the guys were going with other guys. The Family killed him even though he was acting boss. The boys were afraid he'd bring dishonor to the Family if anyone knew he was queer."
The musical The Family also focuses on how, in Violet's experience, mobsters committing violent acts didn't hesitate to wrap themselves in religion. In fact, Violet says, during her time as a prosecutor she could identify someone's Mob standing by the size of the chapel in their home.
"Because even if he killed the guy that was in the casket that he was carrying into the church, you had to be a standup religious person to carry that body into the church for the funeral Mass!" says Violet.
Violet's musical has been in the works for nearly three years. She had to raise about 300-thousand dollars to bring it to stage. Enrico Garzilli has a lengthy resume as a composer, but he calls collaborating on The Family a new kind of experience.
"I've worked in musicals before, many different kinds of musicals, but this is the first time of this particular kind," says Garzilli.
Actor Talia Triangolo, who plays the mistress, is a recent Rhode Island College graduate from Providence. She feels a closer link with the material.
"Being Italian myself, I have a nice connection to it," says Triangolo. "I really can appreciate the story and the connection to my life. I know these places, I know these names, and I know these people, whether they be fictional or not. There's people like this."
For her part, Violet says The Family reflects how people from various backgrounds - Irish, Portuguese, French, Jewish, and not just Italians - serve as Mob associates. She says she hopes the people who see her musical walk away with the sense of having learned something new.
"I think the audience will get a dose of reality, and I trust them to make up their own minds whether this really romanticizes or demonizes. I think it does neither."
The Mob's heyday is long since past. But Arlene Violet's musical The Family offers a reminder that the darker side of human nature is timeless.
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