Most actors who make the leap from Off Broadway to television and feature films never return. As their resumes fill up, their theatrical days become history.
Never one to be typecast, “Sopranos” star Michael Imperioli (Tony’s nephew “Christopher Moltisanti”) is not only returning to his Off Broadway roots, he’s sowing new ones.
Imperioli has opened the ultimate oxymoron: an Off Broadway palace. Named Studio Dante and dubbed a jewel box (in contrast to the black boxes that characterize the city’s smaller theaters), the 64-seater on West 29th Street and 8th Avenue in Chelsea is the lovechild of Imperioli and his wife, Victoria.
The enterprising duo gutted the space with the help of her builder father, Ryczard Chlebowski, and spent nine months laying parquet flooring, applying crimson fabric to the walls, and hand-painting gold details on the columns and chairs.
The resulting opulence contrasts starkly with the theater’s gritty debut production.
John Napolito’s “Baptism by Fire,” which opened April 7, is a drama infused with black humor that pits an ironworker and ex-con (played by Vincent Curatola, “Sopranos” mob boss Johnny Sack) against his playwright son (Nick Sandow) as the younger man’s life unravels.
Fleshing out the cast are fellow “Soprano” Sharon Angela, and Rachel Sledd and James Hendricks.
Imperioli’s choices in material and casting speak to his goals for the venue. He hopes to mix the up and coming with the tried and true, giving writers like Napolito a chance to work with seasoned thesps who comprise his extended working family.
“I’m fortunate, because I have a certain visibility in the industry, so if I do put up a play, I have a good chance of people coming to see it,” Imperioli says. “Hopefully, the people who work with me, like the new writers, can reap some kind of benefit from that.”
He may give some of his famous colleagues a crack at composing for the small stage as well.
“I spoke to (‘Sopranos’ creator) David Chase and asked him if he’d want to write something, just to see what he’d come up with, because he’s so talented,” Imperioli adds.
‘Drive,’ he said
Given the thunderous applause on opening night and the brisk sales that prompted an extension of “Baptism” through May 8, Studio Dante appears on its way to meeting Broadway producer Ben Sprecher’s criteria for success.
“You always want to produce a show that is bigger than the theater it’s in,” says Sprecher, who owns the Promenade and Variety Arts Theaters, and manages the Little Shubert.
Shows that “bounce off the back walls” are not culled from studying the marketplace, but from “a passionate drive of a particular individual,” Sprecher explains. “And clearly (Imperioli) has that.”