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In Ponzi We Trust: the Audacity of Greed

A new musical created by Alexandria resident Lois Cecsarini.

By Kelly MacConomy

ALEXANDRIA, VA – The most famous name in pyramid schemes, aside from Charles Ponzi himself, came to prominence again with the indictment of Bernie Madoff ten years ago. That modern-day Ponzi swindle upstaged even Charles Ponzi in its breadth, massively defrauding thousands out of billions of dollars. Ponzi assuredly would have been duly impressed but might have drawn the line at destroying even his own sons — if he had any children. But he did involve his brother-in-law, robbing him blind as just another hapless investor.

The new musical in local production, Ponzi! paints a portrait of the thief with a heart of gold. Notoriously gregarious, it is said he possessed a certain savior-faire, the “he would give you the shirt off his back” charismatic kind of opportunist — unscrupulous, brazen, craven, yet persuasively charming, ever the life of the party. Created by playwright/lyricist/composer and Alexandria resident Lois Cecsarini, Ponzi! was inspired by his 1936 autobiography, “The Rise of Mr. Ponzi” subtitled, “The Autobiography of a Financial Genius.”

Rehearsal for the staged reading of Ponzi the musical at Nanny J. Lee Center. (Photo courtesy of Robert Blizzard)

It took Lois Cecsarini ten months to complete the homage to “the guy who put the crease in Croesus”, to quote Neal O’Hara of the Boston Times in 1920. Croesus was the King of Lydia in 560 BC, known for his vast wealth. Ponzi actually referred to himself as “the champion get-rich-quick Wallingford of America.” Quotes from the less-than-humble autobiography cleverly worked their way into the script, giving the staging, directed by Bridget Grace Scheaff and aided by Christopher Overly’s Ponzi, that perfect punch of unabashed Broadway bravado.

“There is no question that it takes a village to make a musical and I’m grateful to all who have helped make the Ponzi! project happen. Of course, my hope is that the future of Ponzi! will include a stop on Broadway. But for now, I can’t wait for our first audience here in the DMV to enjoy the show and – we hope – to carry both its tunes and its message home,” Cecsarini explained.

Christopher Overly as Carlo (Charles) Ponzi and Talia Segal as Rose Gnecco Ponzi.
(Photo Courtesy of Robert Blizzard)

Born Carlo Pietro Giovanni Guglielmo Tebado Ponzi (really) in Parma, Italy in 1882, Charles Ponzi had ambitions for a new life, arriving in 1903 with only $2.50, having gambled his life savings on the ship to New York. By 1920 he had made a notoriously extravagant and successful life for himself and his wife before being deported back to Italy 14 years later after his eponymous scheme collapsed.

These were lavish times. The lifestyle credo in the early roaring twenties was soirée, soirée, soirée. F. Scott Fitzgerald in writing The Great Gatsby in 1925 drew his exquisite prose from the climate and culture of avarice: pure, unadulterated, uncensored, scandalous greed.

Charles Ponzi ca. 1920 . (Historic photo.)

Rumor has it Gatsby was in part inspired by Ponzi, a rumor most likely started by Ponzi as well. Historical parallels to life in America just after World War I include corruption, voter suppression, unrest on the southern border, conflicts with the media and even Russian influence.

Supporting actor Robert Blizzard, part of the 15 member cast, explains, “The show tells the tale of Ponzi’s relationships among the Boston populace who for different reasons supported and defended the very figure later sought by law enforcement. In an era when public discourse so often centers on what is true, and what is false, who to trust and what to believe, the musical couldn’t be more timely.”

It takes a talent, imagination and ambition rivaling Ponzi’s to craft the legendary charlatan into an endearing, beguiling Pied Piper of fortune and misfortune — leading the downtrodden out of and into a pauper’s forlorn existence. Robbing Peter to pay Paul was Ponzi’s modus operandi. Think the Harold Hill flimflam man of the Music Man meets Jay Gatsby, Leo Bloom and Max Bialystok. But there was trouble in Boston CityCecsarini skillfully weaves a Tarantella of what Ponzi and his disciples did to have it all. Ruin is the endgame. Collateral damage is incidental. Getting wealthy at all cost, $20 million ultimately in losses, is the resolute objective. For Ponzi the immediacy of wealth is everything. Kiss tomorrow goodbye. Can’t forget. Won’t regret. What he did for love……of money.

Zebra wishes Ponzi! all the very best on its way to stage and hopefully someday soon the Great White Way. By this time next year we all may be humming “Springtime for Ponzi!” Don’t miss your shot to see it here first!

There will be a free first reading of Ponzi! held at the Nanny J. Lee Center on Saturday, May 2nd at 2 pm. Tickets aren’t required. Donations to the production are gratefully accepted. The Kauffman Auditorium at the Nanny K. Lee Center is located at 1108 Jefferson Street in Alexandria.

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Kelly MacConomy

Kelly MacConomy is the Arts Editor for The Zebra Press.

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