You don’t know it yet, but you’re invited to a wedding. And it’s not just any wedding, either. You’re invited to the Italian-American nuptials of Joey and Maria, the good friends you didn’t know you had. Like all weddings, there’ll be laughs, champagne, speeches, heartfelt moments and of course… drama.

Joey and Maria’s Italian-American Wedding is an interactive theatre experience which sees the members of the audience join the wedding as guests. The show has been running for twenty years in the USA and has been a resounding success in Ireland and the UK. The show had its Australian debut on the Gold Coast in 2008, and now it’s Melbourne’s turn to join the fun.

 “[The Queensland run] was really popular but it’s hard up there because there isn’t the population like here, and also they’re not really into the arts on the Gold Coast. There’s not that repeat business,” says Helena Chayna, who appeared in the Gold Coast production as Netta Gnocchi, the mother of the groom, and who produced and cast the Melbourne show. “Here in Melbourne, if someone sees something they like, they’ll go back again and again and again, because that’s the culture here.”

The Boston-based director, Brian Preston, has returned to Australia after his success on the Gold Coast, to direct the Melbourne version. Preston has been involved with the show in various countries for sixteen years, first as an actor, and then as a director. He directed the Las Vegas show, which is held in a casino, and the international debut in Ireland. When speaking with him, it is clear that he has a great passion for the show and characters, and for the improvisational style of the show, which is vital to its success. “They’re all characters, and when I say that I don’t mean characters, I mean characters through and through,” he laughs. “The audience is seated at tables and watches the ceremony on the stage. But after the vows it proceeds like a regular wedding, so the characters move among your tables and talk to you like they’re your cousin or something. It truly is very interactive.”

Of course, there is also a dramatic arc. “It’s Italian-American, there’s gonna be drama!” says Preston. “It’s like Italian–American TV and movies, if you’ve ever seen them before, we take them off the screen and we bring it right to your table!”

Chayna says, “Intertwined in the reception is a whole lot of drama, like the bride’s godfather shows up and then money goes missing and so… there’s lots happening all the way through. There’s all sorts of action.”

But it was the improvisational style of much of the show which drew many of the cast. “There isn’t much theatre at the moment which allows you to truly improvise in character,” Christian Cavallo, who plays the groom, Joey Gnocchi, says.

“There is a script of sorts but it’s mostly improv,” Preston explains. “The [characters] come up to the tables and tell you how beautiful you are, and you say ‘Oh I know, I just went to the beauty parlour’ and I say, ‘My God, did you go to my cousin Sergio’s beauty parlour?’ and so it continues… you never know what the audience is going to do at any one show so it keeps everyone on their toes.”

Preston says that this was also one of the challenges of the rehearsal process. “You can’t teach someone improv, but what you can do is give them the parameters, and say ‘this is the material you can work with.’ They’ll try different things out and if it works you keep it, if it doesn’t you get rid of it but you can’t teach them. Most actors in America hate doing improv, but in Australia they do a better job of working with improv in colleges and universities.” Rehearsing the show in a new country has allowed new opportunities for comedy, Preston says. “It’s funny because in rehearsals in the US and Ireland I see actors making the same choices, but in Australia the actors kept doing things I’d never seen before. I mean, you’d think that after sixteen years of doing it I’d be over the whole thing, but these guys just keep making me laugh. It’s really cool to watch.”

Chayna adds that this improvisational component was a major part of the casting process. “I was looking for good improv skills because anyone can read a script really and there’s a myriad of good actors in Melbourne, but not everyone has those [improvisational] skills.. and that’s a big part of [the show].”

The other major component of casting was to ensure that the cast all got along. “They had to gel,” Chayna says, “because they have to be like a big family.”

Many of the actors are of Italian background, including Chayna and Cavallo. Chayna says, “I didn’t mean to cast mostly Italian actors, but it’s great that we’ve got so many because it’s important to really understand the culture… there’s enough wogs in the cast to make it quite authentic.”

Cavallo takes it one step further: “There’s a Greek groomsman, I’m not happy about it,” he jokes. “He does have amazing guns… His guns will have the girls going…”

Chayna laughs, “Put that in!”

Preston chimes in, “We give the ladies the eye candy! There’s something for everyone!”

The Italian background of some of the cast has led to a humorous rehearsal process, Chayna says: “At times the cast just burst out laughing because they get it, they’re familiar with that culture.” Cavallo adds, “It’s cool, having grown up in an Italian family, I’ve been to these weddings… I read the script and I knew nine out of ten of the songs and I do these weddings with my band. It’s all too familiar to me.”

The songs include such classics as Dancing Queen, Funicula Funiculae, and Grease Lightning, which sees the groomsmen removing their shirts and presumably, the appearance of the aforementioned guns.

Comparisons with Dracula’s and other theatre restaurants are inevitable, but Cavallo states, “It’s not really like Titanic or Dracula’s at all.”

Chayna adds, “I’ve been to most of [the theatre restaurants] and it’s like a cabaret, you sort of watch and eat. We’re different to that. We’re really intent on getting the audience involved through dancing, it’s interactive and they don’t have to sit and watch, they actually get to play,” she says. But audiences should not be afraid of embarrassment, she says. “We don’t force anybody to participate, but it’s structured in such a way that they want to participate. We don’t pull anyone up in front of the whole audience, but it’s like a real wedding, so the characters move among the tables and chat to you as though you’re their friends.”

Cavallo says, “You know when you’re at a wedding as well you do want to get up and have a dance. There’s a lot of goodwill. That’s what it’s like.”

Mixing food and theatre can sometimes lead to an average meal, but Cavallo is quick to assuage any concerns: “It’s a damn good meal,” he says.

Chayna agrees: “At the theatre restaurants the food leaves a lot to be desired. In a theatre restaurant the feature is the show but we’ve got both. It’s an amazing three-course Italian meal.”

Guests will be treated to a choice of penne or risotto for entrée, followed by veal scallopini or chicken with prosciutto and mozzarella. Dessert is tiramisu or apple tart with butterscotch sauce. As Chayna says, “The point of difference is that the food is going to be phenomenal.”

Shows with similar formats have been shown in Australia, most famously, Dimboola, but this does seem to have vamped it up for a new generation. Chayna says, “My description is that it’s a cross between Dimboola and My Big Fat Greek Wedding… except the audience gets involved. They come away feeling like they’ve been at a really fun, exciting wedding.”

And shows in other countries have seen a high level of commitment from audiences – some of whom return several times. “In Ireland’s show, there was a group of women who came up afterwards and said, ‘This is our fifth time coming to the show,’” Preston says. “They’d had such a good time that they kept coming back and in the end they saw it nine times!”

Preston adds that this is the secret to the show’s appeal. “We’re not Shakespeare, we’re not Chekov, we’re not Ibsen – we’re your common man’s great night out,” he says. “We’re not fancy-shmancy, you can just have a good time and some great food, meet some great people and you get to dance like a regular person… You don’t have to be a theatre buff to come to a show like this. Some people can be intimidated by theatre sometimes, they can consider it a bit much, or they just don’t feel like something intense or heavygoing, so I say come out with us and have a good time!”

The Greek groomsman chooses this moment to show up, and his guns are truly distracting. But if that isn’t enough to convince you, go for the food, the show, the dancing, and of course, the drama.

Joey and Maria’s Italian-American Wedding is on 28th October, 13th November, 2nd December, 10th December, and 17th December.

Tickets are $95 per person (includes three-course meal, coffee, soft drink, champagne for toasting. Bar will be open. Opening night group booking special (28th October): Buy nine, get one ticket for free. Tickets must be bought three days before the show to allow for catering.

For bookings and further information: http://joeyandmariaswedding.com.au/bookings/

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