The place is Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the neighborhood where Tony Manero discoed the night away in Saturday Night Fever and where women still live by the credo, “The higher the hair, the closer to God.” The time is the present, meaning that the gay boys of South Brooklyn no longer have to pretend to be straight, and can even tie the legal knot when they meet Mr. Right. What better time could there be for a 20something Italian-American ragazzo like our hero Anthony Pinnunziato to pop the question to his Polish-American sweetie Andrew Polinski? Now all he has to do is convince his traditional Mamma and Papa to give the happy same-sex couple their blessing.

Playwright Anthony Wilkinson thus sets the comedic wheels in motion in his off-Broadway hit My Big Gay Italian Wedding, now getting a hilarious West Coast Premiere in an exuberantly acted albeit barebones production under the peppy direction of Paul Storiale.

61694_10200868801785989_416400979_n Though the parents of our gay young hero have long since come to grips with their son’s sexual orientation, his announcement that not only is he going to marry a man, “I want to be committed in the eyes of God,” comes as more than a bit of a shock to the old-school couple.

“Oh, you should be committed all right,” is Mamma Angela’s kneejerk response, though with a bit of persuasion from Anthony and his relatively more open-minded dad, she and hubby Joseph agree to give their son away (and pay for the wedding) on two conditions: a) The ceremony must be performed by their family priest Father Rosalia, and b) Andrew’s mother must travel north from Florida to attend the ceremony.

Both conditions turn out to be more easily said than done, beginning with Father Rosalia’s point-blank refusal to defy the Pope’s “no way, no how” stance on same-sex marriage. Making matters worse is the fact that not only are Andrew and his mother no longer on friendly terms, she’s basically shut him out of her life since learning he was one of The Gays.

Fortunately, where there’s a will (along with an Internet-ordained minister and a friend willing to do drag), there’s a way, and before long, Act Two’s wedding ceremony and reception have begun.

Theatergoers of the hoity-toity persuasion will likely turn their noses up at stereotypical, over-the-top shenanigans like these, but those with a sense of humor and a willingness to laugh at the foibles of My Big Gay Italian Wedding’s great big cast of gay and/or Italian-American stereotypes will have one fabulous time at the nuptials.

73494_10200868316013845_734685130_n Joe Cisternelli (Anthony) and Ryan Shaughnessy (Andrew) make for a handsome, winning young couple, the only characters who (forgive the oxymoron) play it straight as the rest of their wedding party get to act as flamboyant and/or loud-mouthed as can be, making My Big Gay Italian Wedding all the funnier for their lack of restraint.

1d10a8738563385d945f1ea334f8150cc Barbera Ann Howard and Robert Gallo are stand-outs as Anthony’s parents, Mamma always on the verge of a panic attack and salt-of-the-earth Papa a dead ringer for Father Rosalia, while Anthony’s family circle is completed by his Broadway star wannabe sister Maria and his sexy big-haired, Aunt Toniann (Tara Rispin and Bree Pavey, both terrific).

Josh Patton, the gay slang-learning hetero stoner of Storiale’s The Gayest Christmas Pageant Ever, graduates to full-fledged homo (and believably so) as Gregorio, an ex of Andrew’s from his pre-Anthony slut phase who has dirt on the reformed swinger and plans to use it to make sure this wedding doesn’t take place.

Also along for the ride are Anthony’s posse, beginning with brassy lipstick lesbian Lucia and bleach-blonde, gum-chewing Connie (the spot-on duo of Tiffany Anne Jordan and Maria Dellegrazzi as a pair of insult-trading frenemies); Mario, fashionista fabuloso and Anthony’s best man, played with irresistible verve by the statuesque and slender Eric Stanton Betts; Frankie, a studly, straight-acting gay Guido (Jeff Sands, just right for the part); and sassy, plucky Rodney (an enthusiastic Ronaldo Coxson, for whom a more believable attempt at drag would actually be funnier than a big-muscled man in a long blonde wig and stubble). Matthew Clay appears amusingly in a pair of cameos.

1d10a8738563385d945f1ea334f8150c Last but not least is Maurizio Legrande, the outlandishly flamboyant wedding planner slash Internet-ordained minister played to over-the-top perfection by Matthew Hudacs.

Playwright Wilkinson gleefully trots out every gay and Italian-American stereotype in the book, but who’s counting or complaining when a fab-tastic time is being had by all? Pop culture references to Ann Coulter, Sarah Palin, Tiger Woods, and other Z-Listed celebs keep My Big Gay Italian Wedding up-to-the-minute, and if Wilkinson’s preaching to the gay choir can get heavy-handed at time, MBGIW’s pro marriage equality message is a powerful and increasingly relevant one.

Among Gay Italian Wedding highlights is Maria’s operatic-turned-hip-hop rendition of “Ave Maria,” performed by a vocally and comedically gifted Rispin; Rispin’s inventive wedding reception choreography, including a must-be-seen Italian Chicken Dance (and of course a Mambo Italiano); and cast interaction with invited guests, i.e. audience members at the Whitmore-Lindley.

62986_10200868319973944_1334127172_n Director Storiale gives his performers free rein (and this is one play where bigger is most definitely better), yet one of the production’s more subtly played moments actually coaxed a tear or two from this reviewer’s eyes. Only occasionally, as when virtually the entire cast finds themselves standing side-by-side across the stage, does blocking seem a bit haphazard.

Where My Big Gay Italian Wedding’s West Coast Premiere does not stand up to its New York counterpart or to most intimate theater productions reviewed on this website is the area of production values, i.e. its bare-minimum set and lighting designs (though I did like the New York skyline that overlooks the stage). Also, a series of Act One scene changes keeps plunging the audience into pitch blackness as actors move furniture on-and-off-set again and again. Surely a more efficient, less awkward way to accomplish scene changes could be found.

598551_10200868318813915_1815576276_n Costumes and wigs, on the other hand, are fabulous creations, from Connie and Lucia’s flashy red bridesmaids’ gowns (I love the silver bra that peeks through Lucia’s) to Maurizio’s glittery dress-to-impress-wear to Betts’ and Sands’ trendy black “jeggings.” There’s also a well-chosen selection of Italian-American song hits, and a ringtone for Anthony’s cell phone that had me laughing every time.

Tony Candeleria is stage manager/booth operator, and Storiale is assisted in directorial duties by Pavey.

Fuddy-duddies beware: My Big Gay Italian Wedding may not be your cup of tea (or glass of vino as the case may be). On the other hand, for those simply in the mood for a good time, there’s no show in town more guaranteed to evoke laugh after laugh after laugh.

To paraphrase a popular TV commercial of late ’1960s, “Mamma mia, that’s-a spicy Gay Italian Wedding-a!”

Whitmore-Lindley Theatre Center, 11006 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
March 3, 2013

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