By Ian Rigg
Finally, a wedding you actually want to go to. The perennial favorite Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding makes a triumphant, uproarious return to Chicago to delight a new crowd of revelers, presented by the original New York producers in conjunction with Chicago Theater Works.
For those unfamiliar, the conceit of Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding is that it’s an interactive play, a fun facsimile, both parody and pastiche of an Italian wedding. Each audience member is a wedding guest, and rather than watch a play about a wedding, they’ll experience the wedding, laughing at all the antics around them. They may even be a part of it themselves through improvised interactions with the cast, comprised of 23 characters. Tony n’ Tina’s friends and family certainly put the fun in dysfunctional, and the wild rumpus commences yet again under the old wedding adage: something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.
Something old is the show itself, and it is also the something new. Helmed by director Paul Stroili, a member of the original Chicago production, the classic has new life breathed into it by a veteran with a new point of view. Stroili wisely had his actors rehearse for only three weeks, getting the rhythms and relationships and battle plan together, but realizing that what his cast really needed was to be turned loose on a live audience, trusting one another and their improvisation.
The big beats are cue-based, but the rest of the wedding’s charm is in the minute moments, some pre-planned and some beautifully off-the-cuff. There is never a dull millisecond, let alone a dull moment. The audience even falls under the showrunner’s capable direction, lining up for the buffet and dancing on command. Repeat attendances are not only encouraged, but perhaps necessary to get the whole story: having different vantage points, no two audience members will have the same experience. Even sitting at the same table, no two would observe or overhear the same tomfoolery. The perpetual flow of hijinx may be overwhelming to some, but is no doubt as impressive as it is hilarious.
The actors clearly love their jobs, and can be engaged to whatever level the audience feels comfortable: one can merely laugh at a line directed towards oneself (“You were only this high last time I saw you! You’ve grown!” “How are your kids doing?” “Come up and dance with me!”) or plumb the character for as much of their backstory as they know or can make up on the spot before they have to get to their next cue.
Half choose-your-own adventure and half happenstance, each wedding guest will have their own unique experience. This reviewer even did a line of “cocaine” with the best man, Barry Wheeler. The impeccable improviser Rob Johnson should be commended not only for his commitment but also for remembering so many audience members’ names: “Ian! Get over here! [aside to 18-year-old sister Keara Rigg] You stay here Keara, you’ll learn about all this when you’re older.”
The production is an old but trusty machine, oiled up and recalibrated to serve steadfastly.
Something borrowed would be the performance space, very cleverly rendered. This delightful romp is ingeniously staged in two parts: the wedding ceremony is actually held in Resurrection Church, followed by a raucous reception at Chicago Theater Works. The production design is incredible. Utilizing an actual sanctuary adds not only authenticity and gravitas, but also an extra sacrilicious air to the impish, irreverent proceedings. Even the church bathrooms have been furnished by this crackerjack team.
Theatregoers get the extra treat of verisimilitude by traveling to the reception venue and guided across the street by Tony himself (the deft and delightful Mitchell Conti.) Minds may be blown when guests step across the threshold of “Vinnie Black’s Coliseum,” because this entirely fictional restaurant feels like the real deal. Chicago Theatre Works’ space has been painstakingly converted into an Italian restaurant, replete with portraits of Sinatra and the old country. The charismatic Brian Noonan makes his way around the reception, every bit embodying restaurateur Vinnie Black with his congeniality and joyously cliched standup jokes, making each guest feel right at home. The illusion is so complete, the attention to detail so great, that a cute throwaway joke about Rod Blagojevich being a family friend becomes an even more hilarious Easter egg in one of the hilariously photoshopped framed photos of celebrity guests (Noonan smiles with Blago, Jackie Chan, Johnny Depp and many more).
Something blue is the humor. It is often sophomoric, but almost always sidesplitting. The cast brings a jaunty joie de vivre to their every line. Marssie Marcotti’s Grandma Nunzio soils herself during the ceremony, then appears to have a heart attack during the reception. Affable horndog widower Tony Nunzio Sr. (the likable Tommy Taylor) brings stripper Madeline Monroe (the inimitable Jessica Scott) as his date, who begins to put on a show at the reception.
Serena Pomerantz, the emo Nikki Black, plays the organ and tells you “Meat is Murder” as she serves you Italian sausage. Michah Spayer shines as sleazy showboat Donny Dulce, lasciviously singing at this high-watt wedding. Tony’s groomsmen perform ‘YMCA’ in full Village People regalia. Shirts are removed and thrown into the audience. Billy Minshall is the alcoholic Father Mark, a priest with a problem plopping down at your table: “So how long d’you think it’ll last? I give it a year. I hear their confessions.” Alisha Fabbi is cousin Terry, soon to be Sister Albert Maria, wary and clutching her crucifix at first but gradually giving way to the bacchanalia, and giving us the incredible hymn, “Jesus Is Just Alright With Me”.
There’s a heap of hilarity, but there are also compelling moments. Fights between Tina (played with a charming, utter lack of pretention by Hannah Aaron Brown) and her bridesmaids are resolved. She shares a dance with her brother Joey (the handsome Ryan Milord) in place of her late father. Matt Bausone is a renegade in need of redemption as Michael Just, Tina’s ex-boyfriend. His relapse into alcoholism as the evening wears on is so sad, it almost makes you forget that his first line (after bursting in, late, at the backdoor of the church) is “Me and Tina used to bang!” There is heart behind the hilarity, and that makes this a night to remember. There are far too many fantastic moments, so much good work by the cast, that it would be impossible to enumerate everything in a review. It can only be done justice by attending this ball-to-the-wall bash yourself.
Take a vow to see this Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding.
Chicago Theater Works presents “Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding” through December 30 with the ceremony at Resurrection Church (3309 North Seminary) and reception featuring an Italian-style buffet dinner, dancing to 80’s hits and a champagne toast at 1113 Belmont Ave. More information and tickets ($75 to $85) are available here.