‘Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding’ an interactive theater experience that gets audience on its feet

"Twilight" movie star Ashley Greene came with her birthday-partying friends.

The man who was losing his fight with cancer brought his family.

Everyone is invited to this low-rent wedding bash, though once, the flying chairs and fisticuffs were generated by audience members and not the actors.

The off-Broadway hit "Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding" is the interactive theater phenomenon that’s kept audiences chicken-dancing around the country for 21 years. After a seven-year run at the Rio, the Las Vegas edition recently relaunched at the Planet Hollywood Resort.

Every day is like the movie "Groundhog Day" for the (fictional) Brooklyn families, the Vitales and the Nunzios, eternally boozing and brawling to celebrate the title characters’ nuptials. But at least they’re no longer stuck in 1988.

The move offered a window to implement changes that have gone into other productions in the past two years. Out with the ruffles, in with guest stars such as Tiffany and Rowdy Roddy Piper.

"No more green eye shadow," says Barbara Lauren, who helped open the Rio show in early 2002, and now plays the mother of the bride. "The people who are coming now tend to be younger, hipper."

"I just feel like it can’t be a period piece," says Larry Pellegrini, the director who has been the show’s custodian since its inception in 1988. He admits it was tough to part with the ruffled tuxes and other visual humor, but feels it hasn’t so much been sacrificed as "changed to meet the day."

Fergie replaced Frank Sinatra music during dinner as the show’s demographic dipped below its past core of ages 45 to 50. "Now a younger audience is rediscovering this play. The move to Planet Hollywood really reinforced that," Pellegrini says.

Producers Jeff Gitlin and Raphael Berko say they were beckoned with more than the usual rent-the-room deal to set up Vinnie Black’s reception hall in the casino mezzanine, which housed the London Club for high-end play before the Aladdin became Planet Hollywood.

But the invite from Planet Hollywood chairman Robert Earl strongly encouraged the use of guest stars. Hence Tiffany, written into the play this weekend to follow Piper’s arm-wrestling some of the characters.

"When you get your head beat in for a living, this is great," says the veteran wrestler. "I just accidentally fell into the most wonderful bunch of people I’ve worked with in years. I’ve worked with some real jerks. You know (World Wrestling Entertainment mogul) Vince McMahon?"

"Tony n’ Tina" created a much-copied genre when Nancy Cassaro combined her college study of environmental theater with her own experience of attending several friends’ weddings in the same catering hall.

The show is three-fourths improvised, with the actors depending more on "beats" of structure than dialogue. "The conga line goes exactly the same direction at exactly the same time every night," explains the director.

Pellegrini served the pasta along with directing the original cast, which shares royalties under the name Artificial Intelligence. He says the original collective is getting more serious about years of requests to create a sequel that would catch up to the characters 20 years down the road.

For now, the original show still has a timeless appeal. "Anybody of any age gets to be silly," he says. "People want to have a good time. I think they kind of get lost in this place of being able to be silly."

"Everyone needs to escape. This is a great escape," says Alison Mills, who on this night has just finished her 1,607th performance as Madeline, the stripper girlfriend of Tony’s dad. Mills gets fan mail, and at this show fielded an invitation to a 16-year-old’s prom.

Scott Johnson has been with the Las Vegas version since it opened, playing all of the male characters except Tony and his father. He believes the magic lies in the little moments; talking to people one-on-one or letting patrons eavesdrop on conversations, thinking they will hear the actors break character. (It never happens, if you saw Larry David try on "Curb Your Enthusiasm.")

"That’s what makes this show work. You give just one or two people a real moment that connects with them. They leave feeling like they got something special, because they did," Johnson says.

Pellegrini says it’s a challenge to keep a constantly revolving cast of 20 players versed in the "bible" of details for each character. "We don’t want the audience to catch us. We try to be very, very thorough with it."

But that may be what sets this "Wedding" apart from more superficial imitators, such as "The Soprano’s Last Supper" locally. "It is about trying to create a real world instead of a fantastic one," Pellegrini says.

"I just fight as hard as I can for the cast to perform in a real way, as heightened as possible without being over the top. A wedding is heightened anyway. I always say, ‘Don’t go over the top, but you can peek over the top.’ "



"Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding"

7 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays

Planet Hollywood Resort, 3667 Las Vegas Blvd. South

$57.99-$140.80 (949-6450)



Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

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