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Publication: Syracuse New Times
Date published:
Language: English
PMID: 58875
ISSN: 0893844X
Journal code: SYNT

Italians Dressing

Two gustatory goombahs lead the guffaws in Cooking with the Calamari Sisters

Ah, good taste, what a dreadful thing!" said that old Spaniard Pablo Picasso. He added, "Good taste is the enemy of creativeness." Taking that cue, the creativeness of sisters Carmela and Delphine Calamari suffers no enemies, and no restraints. Their cable access cooking show is all about texture and flavor, but the boundaries of good taste? Stomp on them with size 16s. Did you think that Tony and Tina's wedding was timid and colorless? Give 'em an exploding cigar and a whoopee cushion. Did the subtle puns of Menopause: The Musical go over your head? Not to worry: Any zinger from the Calamari duo goes straight for the belly.

That they work so much of the time is why Cooking with the Calamari Sisters has an extended run to six weeks and so many of the tickets are already gone. It's a Merry-Go- Round Playhouse production that's not playing at the Emerson Park summertime venue; performances instead take place at the Auburn Public Theater, 108 Genesee St., near the Mesa Grande Taqueria.

The downtown Auburn opening feels like a change of pace from the usual MGR fare and an anticipation of the Finger Lakes Musical Theater Festival to come. (Meanwhile, MGR's 42nd Street continues its run at the playhouse on Owasco Lake.) The Auburn Public Theater venue looks to have fewer than half the seats of the playhouse. On opening night artistic director Ed Sayles announced that this was the first professionally produced show to open in the city in more than a century.

If your view of the cultural landscape has been shaped by watching the breaking news from New York City, London and Paris, then you missed the emergence of these, um, girls. They've been a huge hit in Rochester, where they opened at the Downstairs Cabaret in November 2009. There they ran two shows, Cooking with the Calamari Sisters and Christmas with the Calamari Sisters. Despite this, the two affect New Yorker accents and the narrative places them in Bay Ridge in southwest Brooklyn, where Saturday Night Fever (1977) was set. The act appeared at several places around the country before settling in Rochester, home of James "Jay" Falzone, playing the darker sister Delphine. His name is cited first among the three co-creators, along with Daniel T. Lavender (Carmela) and Stephen Smith.

Gleefully embracing the premise that puns are the lowest form of humor, the sisters deliver theirs with such gusto you can't get out a groan. "He poured a whole bottle of red wine in his ear," says one, "and now he's got pickled hearing." You gotta be there for the timing.

But there is no perfume like success, as the late Elizabeth Taylor once observed. The passionate public embrace of what feels like a cabaret act with a barely visible script and lots of improvisation has steadily raised the Calamari Sisters' visibility. Doing business as Squid Inc., from the translation of calamari, the duo will premiere a third show, The Calamari Sisters' Big Fat Italian Wedding, in the lofty environs of the Rochester Association of Performing Arts next May. Last fall Syracuse's tony Redhouse organization in Armory Square announced a version of the Christmas show for November, but it was scratched before it arrived.

The program for Cooking has two sets of bios, the first continuing the pretense that Carmela and Delphine really are two girls, with photos and revealing details. Carmela, we learn, was once a butt double for Kathy Bates. The second gives us information on Lavender (only half-Italian) and Falzone (fullblooded Italian), the sole acknowledgement of the evening that we are seeing guys in drag. Not letting on, of course, is a big part of the gag, along with using only exaggerated feminine gestures. They're not competing in the Pageant beauty contest, and allusions to Judy, Cher, Marlene and Barbra never come up.

There are some strands of plot, but you almost forget them. The sisters aspired to go big time but were beaten out by Rachael Ray and so have been stranded at a dinky cable access station, WFAT. Even at that, the gig could be coming to an end because Carmela (who squints because she's too vain to wear glasses) wants to decamp for the dinner theaters of sunny Florida. Most of the rest is a bitchy Punch and Judy verbal slugfest. Rhetorical thrust often depends on outrageous double entendres on Delphine's advancing years and Carmela's easy welcome to sexual conquest.

Musical riffs, deftly handled by Corinne Aquilina, draw on many of the works of Harry Warren, like "That's Amore," as well as "Mambo Italiano," "Que Sera, Sera," and, sure enough, the theme from The Godfather. We also hear the Rosemary Clooney hit "Come On-A My House," which everyone thinks is Italian, even if composer Ross Bagdasarian kept complaining that it's really Armenian. Music prompts each of the sisters' long solo bits, such as Delphine's exhausting dance routine at the end of the first act. Carmela launches the second act with cartwheels and a medley of famous hits from a mindboggling train of pop singers, including Billy Joel, Madonna and (maybe) Beyoncé.

As Falzone and Lavender have been at this so long, their timing never fails, and the tightness of the scripting tends to reassure us they can keep the pace going without a pause. So when they break loose with what is obviously an ad-lib they get a different kind of laugh. Some of these are put-downs of Auburn, which is described as being stuck in the tundra. Or the rhetorical question, "Why would you want to be in Auburn? Only if you just got out on parole."

Delphine and Carmela put themselves to the test with three "volunteers" plucked unwillingly from the audience. If you avoid the sisters' searching gaze, you make yourself more likely to find yourself on the stage wearing a decorative apron displaying Renaissance Italian art (think of the parts they did not want you to see in high school). The aprons win the loudest guffaws of the evening and are available for sale after the shows. Volunteers have to tell how much, if any, of their ancestry is Italian and what their relationship with the Roman Catholic church might be. On opening night all three were non-practicing Catholics, prompting outrage from Delphine worthy of Sister Mary Regina in Nunsense.

Indeed, like a Nunsense with saltier language, Cooking with the Calamari Sisters lovingly spoofs a phenomenon now disappearing from the scene. And like the Little Sisters of Hoboken, the Calamaris look to have the legs to let them run forever. Given the expanded length of this run, Falzone and Lavender will be replaced for some performances by MGR favorite Bruce Warren (he played Moonface in Anything Goes) and Chris French.

This production runs through Aug. 20. See Times Table for information.

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