‘Joey and Maria’s Italian Wedding’ brings Naples comedy, dinner theater

Marriage may be a celestial thing, but weddings are often an experience closer to Hell, as too many brides know. 

That said, even Hell can be screamingly funny filtered through a doddering priest, a claws-out ex-girlfriend in the congregation and relatives with shady pasts dropping in. Hey, aintchoo glad ta see us?

Theater of immersion

“Joey and Maria’s Comedy Italian Wedding” has come to town to milk the stereotypes of Sicilian family and stodgy nuptial rites for all they’re worth, with laughs the biggest wedding gift. It’s a different form of theater in that:

  • First, it’s immersive/environmental theater. Audience members  — this means you — are a part of the congregation for the ceremony and the high-drama, dance-floor antics reception afterward. Be prepared to boogie with a cast member or get recruited for an opinion on the mother-in-law’s pretentious clothing.
  • Second, it’s popup, presented in a temporary home. Most nights that will be at The Naples Woman’s Club in downtown Naples (for complete details see the information box with this story). “Joey and Maria” will alternate, beginning in January, with some dates at the Elks Bonita/Estero.  

The wedding feast — and it is a feast, since the audience dines on an Italian menu from Artichoke & Co. — precedes the ceremony in this case. Darlyne Franklin, creator of the show, said that’s her procedure for certain audiences: “Once everybody gets fed, and we break that wall down, my audience is a lot less cranky.”

The mother of the groom comes out to open the evening, leading the audience in “Chapel of Love,” before the characters are introduced and the ceremony starts. Plan on not only party hits for dancing but local talent for some of them: ‘We also have featured singers. One of the bridesmaids is a professional singer. So is one of the ushers,” Franklin said.

November fun: Full calendar of things to do in Naples, Bonita Springs, Estero

Threaded throughout the music and socializing are the hijinks of the wedding party and guests. And although there are scenes to play, ad libbing is encouraged.

That will make it a field day for local stars like Naples actors Judith and Mike Santos, familiar as ringleaders of The Naples Players improv performances. Judith plays the drama-queen Nonna, Joey’s grandmother, still vocally mourning the recent passing of her husband — 22 years ago. Mike plays Maria’s cousin, one of the groomsmen. And the two of them should be able to work the room like pros — “We were married here ourselves,” Judith pointed out.

They’ll have competition from Rosie DeLeon, the bride who reads her vows from her cellphone. There’s also Christine Mastrangelo as the ex-squeeze who crashes the wedding in a mini and sparkly stilettos capable of lethal damage. Franklin brought her own father of the bride in her husband, Paul, who has played nearly every male role in the piece over the years. 

“I didn’t want to make it storyline, so there’s no plot to follow,” Franklin said of her show. “No matter where you sit, the characters will come up to you, you’ll dance on the dance floor and you’re not going to miss anything.”

It’s been playing since 1986

“Joey and Maria’s Comedy Italian Wedding” has been one of the dependable staples in the repertory of Franklin, who is now a Bonita Springs resident. Although she’s Strasberg Institute trained, Franklin has found success in theater writing over peformance. She has created shows such as “The Wake of Matty O’Malley,” and “The Soprano’s Last Supper” which ran in Las Vegas venues for over six years. 

But “Joey and Maria” may be her longest running hit, and the only one, perhaps, that had to work with close rivalry. She was finishing “Joey and Maria” at the same time Joe and Dan Cochran, the original producers for “Tony and Tina’s Wedding,” were finalizing their production of a similarly zany immersive Italian wedding in November 1985. (And, yes, it is still playing, too.)

Neither knew what the other was doing, Franklin said.

“(I had) no idea, no idea whatsoever,” she said. “Paul and I went ‘Tony and Tina’s (Wedding)’ to deliberately make sure we didn’t have anything that was similar other than the stereotypical Italian characters.” The two productions, she said, worked with a sort of “gentlemen’s agreement” that one would play the cities, the other the suburbs.

That was perfect for her, Franklin said, “I’d moved to the suburbs about six months before I wrote this, and I thought, ‘There’s nothing out here. I don’t want to drive all the way in (to the city).”

So “Joey and Maria’s Comedy Wedding” played in places like Manhasset, Long Island, in New York and Laughlin, Nevada, although Franklin recalls that the two productions split up the fertile territory of Las Vegas. It has also traveled the West Coast, playing San Diego, Los Angeles suburbs and Palm Springs. 

It has even played in Collier County in the Big Cypress Marketplace on U.S. 41 South, before the marketplace closed in 2010. Some gated communities have brought private showings of it, and the Naples Princess has offered some performances.

“I wanted to write something people would enjoy going to, would have a good time at and be interactive,” said Franklin of her work. “And isn’t now, after a year of pandemic, the perfect time for it?”

Harriet Howard Heithaus covers arts and entertainment for the Naples Daily News/naplesnews.com. Reach her at 239-213-6091.

When: Evenings beginning Friday, Nov. 12 through April; 6 p.m. arrival, 6:45 p.m. dinner

Where: Woman’s Club of Naples, 570 Park St., Naples, and beginning in January some dates at The Elks Bonita/Estero, 3231 Coconut Road, Bonita Springs

Admission: Including dinner, $75 each, $85 beginning Jan. 1; $60 at the Bonita/Estero location; cash bar

To buy: comedyitalianwedding.com or 888-562-7537

COVID-19 protocols: All cast and crew are fully vaccinated; sanitation procedures follow each show; food service staff will wear appropriate protective facewear and gloves; guests are asked to monitor their own health