If you only paid attention to the promotional materials, you might think — as I did — that "The Calamari Sisters' Big Fat Italian Wedding" is a campy, broadly comic, song-and-dance-filled trifle based around ethnic and gender stereotypes.
And, hey, it is all of those things. But what might surprise you — as it did me — is the wit, craft, and polish put on display. This is a thoroughly well-thought-out and executed production, and after having seen it, I'm not surprised that the Calamari Sisters — created by Jay Falzone, Dan Lavender, and Stephen Smith, and premiered right here in Rochester — have been embraced by local audiences for the past several years, and are poised to spread out across the country like a tipped-over bowl of lovingly made pasta e fagioli.
"Big Fat Italian Wedding" is the third chapter in what has emerged as the Calamari Sisters franchise. The previous two installments — "Cooking with the Calamari Sisters" and "Christmas with the Calamari Sisters" — packed houses at two different Downstairs Cabaret Theatre locations. Those shows introduced thousands of Rochesterians to the unique charms of Delphine and Carmela Calamari, a pair of very Italian siblings living in Brooklyn. The two combined their twin loves of food and performing into a public-access TV show called "Mangia Italiano," in which they cook, bicker, cook, sing, bicker, dance, pleasantly insult the audience, and bicker some more.
"Wedding" finds one of the sisters on the verge of walking down the aisle, and "Mangia Italiano" goes on location to that most glamorous of destination-wedding locales — the Catskills! — as Carmela and Delphine teach audience members how to prepare a spectacular reception buffet, and try to make it to the altar without killing one another.
Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the Calamari franchise is the depth of the world that Falzone, Lavender, and Smith have created for their lead characters. I'm not even talking about the first two full productions — just read through the program notes to "Italian Wedding." They are hysterically funny, and showcase some gleefully subversive tendencies. (Just the bit on director Francis Ford Coppola had me sniggering before the show even started.)
As for the lead characters themselves, yes, Carmela and Delphine are total stereotypes. But they have fully fleshed-out backstories and distinct personalities. (Carmela is, shall we say, very physically generous to the menfolk, while Delphine's carnal urges are focused on meats that have been salted or cured.) The dynamic makes for a fantastic comedy duo, and the sparking chemistry between the two of them is one of the show's greatest strengths. In fact, things sag a bit in "Italian Wedding" when one or the other sister is off set.
The second act also gets slowed down from being overstuffed with song-and-dance numbers, most of them mash-ups of familiar pop tunes from the 1950's to the present with some moderately altered lyrics for parody purposes. Both Carmela and Delphine — they are identified only as Carmela and Delphine in the program — can sing, dance, and perform. But the songs seem almost superfluous, especially given the strength of the show's comedy. I like hearing "Going to the Chapel" well enough, but I found myself wanting the sisters to get right back to the rapid-fire banter, the expertly delivered long-con punchlines, and the lightning-quick zingers during the audience-participation bits.
The music is undoubtedly part of the show's crowd-pleasing appeal, though — and it is a crowd pleaser, hitting a wide range of audiences. Fans of cabaret, camp, musicals, ethnic comedy, and even old-school farce will find much to appreciate with this show. The impressive set reveals smart little details throughout the performance (love the portrait of Jesus that lights up in disapproval when an audience member gives a bad answer), including some impressive and intricate stunt tricks for the harried finale. The East End Theatre, which was overhauled specifically for this show, is also a great venue, and one that is set to get lots of use during the upcoming inaugural Fringe Festival in September.
The final page of the program suggests that more Calamari Sisters adventures are in the offing, and the website includes posters for even more prospective productions that may or may not be jokes (please let "Sitting Shiva with the Calamari Sisters" happen). Don't be surprised if this burgeoning entertainment empire continues to grow and expand for years to come. The people in charge clearly know what they're doing. I'm calling it right now, coming in 2046: "The Calamari Sisters Make Marzipan on Mars."