Mario’s Big Number

When Mario Cantone brings his show “On the Way to Broadway” to Parker Playhouse, expect jokes … plus songs, dance and most likely a Liza Minnelli impression.

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May. 29, 2015

MarioCantone-Credit Peter Lau_.jpgCalling Mario Cantone a stand-up comedian is a bit like referring to one of the multi-million-dollar beauties docked near Bahia Mar as a boat. It’s true, but it doesn’t quite tell the whole story.
When Cantone performs, he performs with a band. He choreographs the act. There’s an opening number.
“It’s like a one-man variety show,” he says.
“It’s a lot of music, there’s a new Liza bit I got that’s fun, there’s a new opening number.”
If you even need to ask who Liza is, you probably haven’t seen much of Cantone’s stand-up. An actor and television personality who played wedding planner Anthony on Sex and the City and regularly co-hosts The View, Cantone’s main gig is as a comedian mixing dead-on impressions, withering observations and yes, song-and-dance routines.
“Jon Stewart says I’m the white Sammy Davis Jr.,” he says. “It’s a throwback – except that I have a mouth on me, unfortunately.”
Parker Playhouse should be a perfect venue for a comedian who likes room to work.
“I like doing theaters or casino shows,” he says. “The clubs — I don’t like them. I never did. It’s not theatrical enough. The stage isn’t big enough.”
For Cantone, comedy and theater have always been closely linked.
“I like when people say I’m an actor – that hasn’t been as much as the comedy, unfortunately,” he says. “So when people do recognize me as an actor, that’s nice.
“When I was younger, the people I really looked to were people like Lily Tomlin and Steve Martin. When I first started, I did character pieces like Lily Tomlin. I wasn’t myself. Then I started being myself between the character pieces.”
Well, sort of himself. Cantone started in stand-up comedy in the early 1980s. The comedy scene was taking off then, but one aspect of his life was basically off limits.
 “When I was coming up, if you were gay, you were like a leper,” he says.
“When I first started, I didn’t talk about being gay on stage. It wasn’t until like … maybe ’90 or ‘91, I started to deal with it on stage a little bit more.”
But oddly enough, the homophobia of the time inadvertently helped develop Cantone’s comedy.
“All those years of not talking about it, it forced me to reach for other things,” he says.
In his act today, being gay plays a part – just as being a New Yorker plays a part or coming from a big Italian-American family plays a part. He’s a comedian who talks about being gay, not a “gay comedian.”
And he draws a largely straight audience. He knows this because he checks.
“I poll the audience,” he says. “For the most part, it’s a lot of straight people. It’s a lot of women and a lot of straight couples. It’s always been that way for me. Gay men like the female comedian – Margaret Cho, Kathy Griffin — and I get it. I do too.”
Mostly, his shows are rapid-fire riffs on whatever’s on his mind. It’s not unknown for material to be created on the spot.
“I write on stage,” he says. “It’s very rare for me to sit down and write material. I have to speak it.”
And he loves speaking it in South Florida. He’s performed here several times before, and he also visits people. Two friends moved down years ago.
“I’m like, ‘You’re too young a Jew to be moving to South Florida,’” he says. “’Stay in New York a little longer.’ But I go down to visit them every now and then.”
Hey, he’s kidding. He’s a comedian.
“I really love the audiences down there,” he says. “I get it. I get why people move there.”
The show he brings will be one meant to fill a theater. With that love of theatricality, he likes to put a big show on stage.
“Now I always work with music,” he says. “I love the aspect of working with a band.
“I think people miss the variety thing. I think a lot of people that grew up with it want it again.”
They want jokes, but they also want songs. They want entrances. They want a big opening number. On this, Cantone is happy to oblige.
“My opening numbers are usually like closing numbers,” he says.
In the past, he says, he’s done songs such as Shirley Bassey’s “This Is My Life” – big, curtain-raising belters. And he’s excited about the one he’s got planned for this tour.
“This one is … I won’t say. You’ll have to come see.”