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No More Suffering in Silence

March 09, 1994|JIM WASHBURN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

HUNTINGTON BEACH — Remember this optimistic bit of peace-march jargon from way back when: "Suppose they gave a war and nobody came"?

There was a time in Joe Cangelosi's life when he might certainly have wished folks had lived up to that slogan: when he was a young man in Sicily and World War II overran his family's ranch, not to mention his life.

But when he gave a little war of his own--in the form of a musical about sundered wartime love, titled "Ghibli"--he would rather a few more people had showed up. Like an audience , perhaps, and several of the cast members.

Not many people ever get around to writing their own musical, but retired medical doctor Cangelosi did: the music, the lyrics and the book. The things he couldn't do himself, such as orchestrations, he paid a hefty amount to have done. Then he produced and directed the thing, twice, in local halls he'd rented.

"The first time I spent around $30,000 on it," Cangelosi said of his musical's 1989 debut in a 914-seat auditorium at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa. "I'd had arrangements done for the 31-piece orchestra, hired professional singers. And I couldn't get people to come. From an Italian club I belong to I was expecting 300 of them to show up in the audience. 'Oh, we'll come, we'll come, we'll come!' Only 25 of them did, of the maybe 400 people total who came.

"Along with a lot of unbelievable mistakes happening, I had the same problem onstage. When I had 'Ghibli' performed again in 1993, I had to cut or shorten some scenes because so many performers didn't show up. Instead of having 20 people onstage, there would be three or four because the others didn't show up at the last minute."

It's difficult to get the epic sweep and tragedy of war across with three actors, even if they do wave their arms a lot.

I met Cangelosi over pasta and panini last Thursday, introduced to him by Issay restaurant chef Paulo Pestarino, who, it might bear mentioning, could probably cook a laptop computer and make it delicious. Cangelosi looks wickedly good for his 74 years, with thick wavy hair, sparkling eyes and a face that nimbly bears that curious Italian mixture of mirth and melancholy.

Cangelosi was born in 1920 in Madison, Wis., and lived there until age 4, when his father, having done well in the grocery business, moved the family back to the old country to fulfill his dream of owning a ranch. Cangelosi grew up on a rolling spread near Palermo. And it was there, with the onset of World War II, that his troubles began.

He was a medical student when the war broke out. Studying was difficult because "the Americans were trying to kill me, the British were trying to kill me," he said, referring to the indiscriminate bombing, which, like food shortages, became a part of daily life. Meanwhile, the Fascists had appropriated a chunk of the family ranch for use as a POW camp. Cangelosi said he and his family befriended and did their best to help the American prisoners kept there.

In "Ghibli" (a North African term for "Sandstorm"), the lead character, Emile, is a French prisoner of war held in Germany, pining for his fiancee back home. When he's finally released, he returns home only to find that his Anne, believing him dead, has married another. He, naturally, enlists in the French Foreign Legion, where he volunteers for a suicide mission traveling alone through a sandstorm to bring help to his beleaguered outpost. In the storm he has visions of his Anne guiding him on, and when he arrives, nearly spent, at the fort, he finds she has dumped her hubby and come there looking for him. It is a happy ending.

Cangelosi was inspired to write his musical by his wartime experiences, though they were significantly different from his protagonist's. For starts, he was never a prisoner of war, nor even in the military. He says he did once try to enlist in the Italian air force, but only with the intent of deserting and aiming the first plane they put him in for an Allied airstrip. His U.S. birthplace kept the military from accepting him, though.

On the home front, however, he became involved with a woman named Anna. Even after five decades, his sense of discretion asked that the details of this romance be kept off the record. Suffice to say that, in the finest Italian tradition, the love affair was heated, audacious, altogether complicated and fated to have no future.

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