“The Wanderer” is a musician’s life told by his music

Mike Wartella and the cast on stage
'The Wanderer' Mike Wartella and the cast… photo by Jeremy Daniel

The long-awaited musical biography of Dion is full of warmth and affection

Joey McIntyre and Mike Wartella standing next to each other with Christy Altomare in the background with other cast members
‘The Wanderer’ Joey McIntyre, Mike Wartella, Christy Altomare photo by Jeremy Daniel

Dion DiMucci, better known as just Dion, was a giant in many genres of music — rock, blues, folk, Christian, and R&B, to name a few — and has been justly honored during his long career. Cited as an influence by many of today’s music giants, an early inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Dion traveled a long and sometimes rocky road from his beginnings as a young doo-wop artist in the streets of the Bronx.

The Wanderer, the long-awaited musical biography of this legend, has finally made its debut at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn. The wait was worth it. This is a joyous musical covering the decade from 1958 to 1968. It’s filled with songs of the era, many of which were written or recorded by Dion, either as solos or with his early group, the Belmonts. Yet it does not shy away from the darker aspects of Dion’s life, including his addiction to heroin and his battle with his own low self-esteem, which nearly cost him his life and his career.

Mike Wartella and Christy Altomare in front of a door looking at each other
‘The Wanderer’ Mike Wartella, Christy Altomare photo by Jeremy Daniel

Lead actor Mike Wartella captures the essence of the joy and pain of Dion without trying to impersonate him. His singing voice is up to the demands of the part, easily navigating such hits as “Runaround Sue,” “Lovers Who Wander,” “Ruby Baby,” “A Teenager in Love,” “Abraham, Martin and John,” “King of the New York Streets,” “If I Should Fall Behind,” and the title tune.

This jukebox musical is as true to real life as you can get in a show that compresses a turbulent decade into two and a half hours. This is to the credit of director Kenneth Ferrone and an outstanding cast.

Christy Altomare shines as Susan Butterfield, the strong, loving woman who is the love of Dion’s life. Joey McIntyre gives an intensely powerful performance as Johnny, Dion’s advisor, and confidante. Billy Finn, Stephen Cerf, and Jess LeProtto blend their voices beautifully while providing moments of humor as the Belmonts. Finn and Cerf also take on cameo roles as Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper, respectively, with Miguel Jarquin-Moreland as Ritchie Valens, friends with whom Dion was touring up to the night of the plane crash that killed them. A recreation of their last concert frames the first act of the show.

Mike Wartella on stage withe the cast around him and a old studio camera in the foreground
‘The Wanderer’ Mike Wartella and the cast… photo by Jeremy Daniel

Other strong performances are given by Johnny Tammaro and Joli Tribuzio as Dion’s parents; Kinglsley Leggs as a Black blues musician who is Dion’s mentor and Jasmine Rogers as his daughter; and Jeffrey Schecter as Bob Schwartz, Dion’s first music producer.

As for the ensemble, they make the free-spirited period choreography by Sarah O’Gleby seem effortlessly easy and bring excitement and energy to the proceedings. Conductor Sonny Paladino leads a fine seven-piece on-stage orchestra to provide the musical underpinnings of the show’s many songs in many styles.

Sarah Laux’s costumes are perfect, capturing the styles of the era and the Bronx neighborhood in which most of the show’s scenes are set, adding greatly to the realness of the production. While Beowulf Boritt’s sets are both evocative and technically brilliant, to my mind, they looked a little too much like the sets he designed for Paper Mill’s production of the musical A Bronx Tale several years ago.

The Wanderer works both as a musical entertainment and as a biographical recounting of the early career of the musical legend and influence that is Dion. The Wanderer is much more than a string of hits speeding along with a biography wedged in between numbers. It is a show with warmth and affection for its subject, handled with love by the cast, the designers, and the creative staff.

Paper Mill Playhouse has come up with a winner in The Wanderer, and I recommend you see it while you have the chance.

The Wanderer is presented by the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through April 24th. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit papermill.org or call 973-376-4343. The Playhouse requires proof of vaccination and a photo ID to enter the building, and masks must be worn while inside the building.

Note: Dion will be making stops on his 2022 tour in the following New Jersey-area locations: the Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank, July 14th; the Borgata Music Box in Atlantic City, July 15th; Bergen PAC in Englewood, July 17th; the St. George Theatre in Staten Island, July 20th; and the Mayo PAC in Morristown, July 21st. For more information, contact the individual venues.

Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has recently been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre reviewers. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.