Pasta, Wine and a Fake Leg

Let's face it: Deep down, people who love mob shows kind of wish they were wise guys. After all, the position has great benefits: rich Italian food, snappy clothes, money, booze, sex. If mobsters' job descriptions didn't include offing people, and they didn't have to take bullets instead of pink slips for poor job performance, plenty of Sopranos fans would apply.

Since real Mafia work does call for the occasional bludgeoning in the back of a Caddy, it's always been smarter to watch "the life" onscreen than to live it. But now there's another way: Wannabes can become mobsters for a night at The Soapranos, an interactive dinner theatre/parody show making its Houston debut after a stint up north in Tony's territory.

"We take things really over the top," says executive producer Rick Stack. "And people love to watch about organized crime because it's fascinating. Everybody wants to make their own rules, and mobsters make them by breaking them."

At the show, audience members, who play mobsters and molls attending a retirement party for Tony "Soaprano," must elect a new head of the family. During a three-course, nearly three-hour dinner, actors portraying characters from the show perform both rehearsed and improvised segments, sometimes strolling through the tables. Over chicken marsala, Carmela might unload on you about Tony's mistresses, or Janice might brandish a fake leg right in your face.

Familiarity with The Sopranos and its story lines helps diners get the jokes and match performers with their TV counterparts, but the all-local cast members are talented enough to entertain the uninitiated as well. Actors drag unwitting audience members onstage, forcing a well-dressed senior citizen to yell out her best "I'm gonna break your legs!" during Hit Man Tryouts, for instance, or a group of nervous husbands to audition as dancers at the Bada Bing Club.

"You want the audience to really feel like a part of this," says Stack. And everyone who attends will have to participate somehow -- at a minimum by jumping up to dance the tarantella or the Electric Slide during the show's dance party. The more game the audience, the more fun the show.

Though Stack hasn't heard from the real show's creators, he did receive a good luck note from Vincent Pastore, who played the ill-fated "Big Pussy" on the show (perhaps he's looking for a new gig). Stack believes that people respond to The Sopranos because its plot bounces between both "families" in Tony's life, giving the series more layers than your typical crime show.

And, says Stack, even though many portrayals of "the life" are set in decades past to the same tired sound tracks by Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra (who gets his own moment of silence during the party), mob stories are still modern.

"Organized crime is still a major force around the world," he says. "When a government fails, it steps in. In a way, Saddam Hussein is the biggest gangster of them all!"

Hmm. Perhaps President Bush could settle this Iraq thing once and for all by sending a special battalion of wise guys into the Middle East. But then, it's probably too hot in the desert for leather jackets.

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero