"Another Christmas With the Calamari Sisters: Feast of the Seven Fishes" is the latest in the series of campy, irreverent musical-comedy shows featuring bickering (but loving) sisters Carmela and Delphine Calamari, hosts of Brooklyn public-access-television cooking program, "Mangia Italiano." The characters, created by Jay Falzone, Dan Lavender, and Stephen Smith, have been charming audiences over the past several years with their delightful mix of parody and cabaret-style drag performance. Even with that mouthful of a title, their new show is a crowd-pleaser, as instantly comforting as a heaping plate of home-cooked pasta bolognese.
The pleasantly silly plot of "Another Christmas" finds the sisters taping their holiday special and preparing to host a party to which they've invited a number of popular celebrity chefs. The party is their attempt to redeem themselves from a disastrous trial audition with the Food Network, which has led to a somewhat adversarial relationship with anyone associated with that particular channel. Along the way, the sisters cook, perform renditions of some familiar Yuletide chestnuts, gossip about their family, and engage in a bit of "Gift of the Magi"-esque present swapping involving Carmela's cabaret costumes and Delphine's beloved meat grinder, Leon. It all culminates in a frantic finale as the sisters demonstrate their world-famous ability to cook seven different fish dishes in under seven minutes.
This was my first experience with the Calamari sisters, and I came away impressed with the wit and talent that has gone into every inch the production. This is a show that knows exactly what it wants to be and does it extremely well. Sure, it's broad, loud, and traffics in a heavy dose of schticky Italian-American humor, but the way the creators have built an entire world for their characters to inhabit reveals that the sisters are remarkably fully realized comedic creations. There's even a "Previously On..." paragraph of text included in the program setting up the events leading up to the beginning of this show, and it's likely there's even more connections linking the sisters' previous shows.
It's this attention to detail that allows these women to come to life, and after four different programs, the actors know these characters like the back of their hands. I'm sure there's a fair amount of formula behind the structure of the various shows, but it's a testament to the entire production that it never feels that way. The Calamaris have a gift for rapid-fire banter, and the show never stops moving (though Carmela's "Around the Globe" cabaret number does go on just a bit too long).
On the subject of attention to detail, it must be said that the kitchen set, in which all of the action takes place, is a remarkable bit of scenic design. It's full of little touches that make it feel surprisingly homey, like a real, lived-in kitchen — right down to specific character names appearing on each of the Christmas stockings.
This is a show that goes a long way in demonstrating the truth in the idea that it's not what you say, but how you say it that really matters. In less skilled hands, the stereotypes and "un-PC" humor of the Calamari sisters might be off-putting, but it works within the context of the show's universe. It helps that the sisters don't discriminate in who they choose to target, so it never comes across as mean spirited in any way.
There's such big-hearted, infectious enthusiasm on display, that it's a joy to immerse yourself in this world for a couple hours. Full disclosure: I got immersed a little more than most when I found myself being pulled up on stage during a Friday night performance. Audience participation is a key component of the show, allowing the actors to showcase their improv abilities as they riff off the participants' reactions. I was called upon to help out during Carmela's absence at the start of the second act (my tablemates assured me that my assistance was crucial to Delphine's rousing rendition of "Santa Baby"). Many thanks to Delphine, who made a typically stage-phobic individual like myself feel slightly less petrified in front of an audience. I'll even forgive the fact that, unlike my fellow participants, I didn't leave the stage with a snack for my trouble.
Even without the benefit of appearing on stage, it's hard not to be won over by the Calamari sisters. Their "Feast of the Seven Fishes" features a mix of ingredients that blend together into something that's sweet, festive, and a little tacky. In other words, it feels a lot like Christmas.
The JCC's CenterStage has a track record of presenting surprising, quality holiday productions. "Coney Island Christmas" is just the latest.