STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia:Tony 'n' Tina at 10

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia:Tony 'n' Tina at 10 You know who's approaching their tenth anniversary?

You know who's approaching their tenth anniversary?

Tony 'n' Tina.

That's right. Many celebrated and ordinary couples who wed years after Tony Nunzio and Tina Vitale have already separated and divorced. But those two Italian-American kids just rollin' along.

What they've also done is show the theatrical world a thing or three. The interactive Off-Broadway show Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding officially started in late '86.

Co-producer Joe Corcoran says, "I was working as a bond trader on Wall Street, when one day my good friend Mark Nassar told me that and a bunch of his fellow Hofstra graduates were developing this environmental, audience-participation piece. He was playing Tony, Nancy Cassaro was playing Tina, and her boyfriend Chris Fracchiolla was playing Tony's father. So I went just to see what they were up to." Corcoran liked it so much that he immediately asked not to produce it, but to be in it. "So I played Dominic Fabrizzi, Tony's best man, a few times. When I invited my family and friends from Long Island -- who are not typical theatergoers -- and when I saw how it'd appealed to them, I realized there was market out there for this kind of show."

Corcoran quit Wall Street in February of 1988, after calling his bond trader brother Daniel in London, and told him they should produce this. Right around the time when Cassaro married Fracchiolla, the brothers Corcoran moved the production moved to the Washington Square Church for the nuptials, and, for the reception, Carmelita's, a tacky upstairs club on the nefarious 14th Street and Third Avenue location. People came anyway.

"At that time, I was driving the car that brought Tony and Tina from the church to the reception, even did the tickets for a few months, till we moved to Vinnie Black's space," where they've been for 3,300 performances (though they moved the wedding to St. John's Church on Christopher Street in 1990). "It was an article in People Magazine that really made us take off."

Evidence, then, that Corcoran was reaching an audience that doesn't know Oscar Hammerstein from Oscar Homolka. "We get the ball crowd, the barbecue crowd, the suburbanites who never came into the city before this, and certainly people who have never been to legitimate theater in their life."

But Corcoran thinks that the success of this show may change that. "I do believe they say to themselves, 'I had such a good time at that theater, I wonder what the other theaters have to offer.' Interactive theater is an important bridge."

Much like Herman Levin -- who produced nothing new for seven years after My Fair Lady because there were so many road companies to deal with -- Corcoran has spent his time in these ensuing years reproducing the event. Tony Nunzio and Tina Vitale have been married in more cities than have Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw, and Jennifer O'Neal put together. 27 cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Chicago, Vancouver, Seattle, and Boston, have now watched the nuptials.

Other producers have sent in the clones. It's a rare metropolitan area where you don't see ads for Mario and Maria's Wedding, or Joey and Josie's, or whatever alliterative pairings the copycats can conceive.

"It's flattering to a certain degree," admits Corcoran. "We do know from a legal standpoint you can't copyright an idea. It's not like, say a Neil Simon play where the words are the words. What we created was an environment and a format. If the rip-offs change the sequence around, do it a different way or use other characters, it becomes something different enough from us. Like some of the take-offs do shorter versions, have fewer characters, or use dee-jays instead of a live band. I'll tell you, one thing about these imitations [that] really amused me: Did you know that one our of rip-offs sued another rip-off? The judge ruled there weren't enough similarities in the script for a suit."

That environment and format, Corcoran insists, makes TNT is a good training-ground for fledgling actors. "I like to think of the show as a nice big acting class, because every single night the actors are forced to improv. It keeps them on their feet, and it's a very sound foundation for an actor as they move on throughout their careers. It helps them in their subsequent auditions, because they know how to be spontaneous and be ready for anything a director might throw their way.

"That's why, I'm sure, one of our former cast members is on 'Mad about You,' another is on 'Men Behaving Badly.' Our original priest, Phil Rosenthal, became the head writer on 'Coach.' Michael Winther, the original Donny Dulce (the bandleader) has shown up on Broadway, in Artist Descending a Staircase and Damn Yankees, among others.

And who knows how many theatergoers have taken up acting after making their professional debut at Tony 'n' Tina's? Hey, everybody wants to be in show business, and this is a show that allows you to be anything you want to be. "You want to be Tina's high school teacher?" asks Corcoran. "Just say so, and you're Tina's teacher It's a wonderful escape."

Yes, let's say it's a more joyous version of Genet's The Balcony, where people went to role-play in a far less happy-go-lucky way. "In an age of TV and computers, people want to be more involved. David Copperfield involves the audience, and that's one of the reasons people like to go to see him. Blue Man Group involves the audience, too, and they're still around. Interactive theater is not just a minor trend," insists Corcoran. "It is not going to go away."

He's right. While some theatergoers may struggle with the thought of spending $50-$75 for a Broadway show when they know that some version of them is on the shelf down at their town's best video store. Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding gives you something you can't possibly experience on your Quasar or at your Quadriplex.

Which explains Corcoran's most recent project. When he was setting up a TNT company in Boston, he was invited to see Late Nite Catechism, in which MariPat Donovan dons an old fashion regulation Nunsense habit (not to mention totally masculine sturdy-duty shoes), and becomes your religion teacher. Woe be to him who doesn't know the seven sacraments from the seven deadly sins, as well as answers to hundreds of Who-made-you-type catechism questions.

"I didn't go to Catholic school," admits Corcoran, "but I did go to catechism class, and I was brought up in a very strict Catholic family where we didn't miss church ever. My parents just weren't in a position to afford Catholic schools."

But Corcoran again put his mother in the position to afford an opinion on Catechism via a backers' audition. "She loved it, and I knew I was onto something, because she really represents the d some of the responsibility for your good time."

A look at professional theater these days corroborates his point. The sex comedies and searing dramas have disappeared because they and their frank language and situations now routinely appear on TV. Musicals still exist because they just aren't as good on film or video as they are on stage. So what's left?

An experience you can get in a theater and nowhere else.

Since TNT, there's been another long-run interactive smash, Grandma Sylvia's Funeral. Funny thing; not long after Tony 'n' Tina opened, I remember Nancy Cassaro telling me that they were toying around with the idea of doing a theatrical funeral.

"But we never did it," Corcoran says unapologetically. "I like joyous events, and the funeral idea just struck me the wrong way. But I'm not entirely surprised that Grandma Sylvia worked. I'm telling you," he says, still shaking his head in awe, "this interactive theater thing is really something."

Oh, and Nancy Cassaro and her husband? Yup, life imitates art. They're still married -- just as long as Tony 'n' Tina have been.

--Peter Filichia is the New Jersey drama critic for the Star-Ledger.