Mekka The Big Ragu Gets Therapy in The Big Apple

Touted as The Big Apple gets "The Big Ragu", Eddie Mekka will be starring in Steve Solomon's long-running comedy My Mother's Italian, My Father's Jewish & I'm In Therapy! at the Westside Theatre downstairs at 407 West 43rd Street.  Many folks will remember Mekka as Carmine Ragusa on the classic sitcom Laverne & Shirley. Mekka assumes the role of "Steve" beginning on Tuesday, July 15th. Steve Solomon, the show's creator and original star, will be returning to the show for three weeks through July 13th before Mekka assumes the role.

Mekka, a series regular for seven seasons on Laverne & Shirley, began his career as a New York trained actor earning Tony and Drama Desk Award-nominations for his performance as the title character in "The Lieutenant." Other Broadway credits include Stephen Schwartz's The Magic Show and Tom Stoppard's Jumpers. Most recently, Mekka starred in national tours of Grease with his television co-star Cindy Williams, Fiddler on the Roof and The Goodbye Girl.  On film, Mekka has been seen in Dreamgirls, Beaches, A League of Their Own and Top Of the World.  His recent television credits include "24," "The Suite Life of Zack and Cody," "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," "The Bold and the Beautiful," "The Big Easy," "The Jamie Foxx Show" and as Detective Murdoch in the Fox T.V. movie "Catch Me If You Can".

I had spoken to Eddie a couple of weeks back when he was appearing in Fiddler on the Roof at the Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine with Sally Struthers. So, now I catch up with him while he is in rehearsals for Therapy in New York.

TJ:  Good morning, Eddie.

MEKKA:  Yo!

TJ:  How you doing?

MEKKA:  Good. Doing good. Just trying to get all these lines down.

TJ:  Therapy is quite the show, huh?

MEKKA:  Yeah. It's a tough act to follow. Some big shoes to fill.

TJ:  How did you get involved with this? Did you know Steve?

MEKKA:  We've got the same friends.  I didn't know him before. No. The people that book the act used to book me in the Poconos and ships and stuff like that.  So, I've known them for a while.

TJ:  Had you seen the show before this?

MEKKA:  The first time I saw it was in Vegas just before I went off to do Fiddler a couple of months ago. I saw it and they started talking to me after that.

TJ:  What did you think of it?

MEKKA:  I think it's great! I think it's very entertaining and fast paced. It's got a lot to offer, you know? It works in all different venues, too! Obviously, when it played in Vegas, it sold out at the Suncoast.

TJ:  Is the character something that you can identify with?

MEKKA:  A lot of it, I can,yeah!

TJ:  Are you 100% Italian?

MEKKA:  No, I'm half Italian and half Armenian.

TJ:  Half Italian and half Armenian, hmmm.

MEKKA:  Yes, I'll make you a rug you can't refuse. [laughing] That's the only one I got.

TJ:  Did you grow up in a big family?

MEKKA:  Yes. Well, three brothers, a sister and me…if that's considered big nowadays.

TJ:  Well, I have three brothers and three sisters…so yeah, it is.

MEKKA:  So, there you go! We wonder how our parents did it in those days, you know?

TJ:  I understand that. I still tell my mother she's a saint.

MEKKA:  Yeah, motherhood is a dying art.

TJ:  When was the last time you were in New York on stage?

MEKKA:  That's a good question. I've rehearsed a couple of tours here.  I did The Goodbye Girl and Grease with Cindy Williams, but we rehearsed it here. We never played it here. The last time would have been 1975 with The Lieutenant.

TJ:  For which you were nominated for a Tony and a Drama Desk Award?

MEKKA:    Yep. That was at the Lyceum Theatre.

TJ:  So, it's been a while.

MEKKA:  Yeah, it's been a while. I just enjoy walking the streets. You know you're becoming the old man when you say, "You know, that used to be a parking lot!" or "I remember that was a shoe store over there." You just sound like your father.

TJ:  Yeah, I hear you.

MEKKA:  I think we all become our parents, you know?

TJ:  You and I spoke recently when you were doing Fiddler On The Roof in Ogunquit with Sally Struthers.

MEKKA:  We did really well for them. It was a really good opportunity to work with Sally. She's a treasure.

TJ:  How long will you be in Therapy?

MEKKA:  I don't know. It's an open end thing. I just get started and see what happens.

TJ:  Is this the first one man show that you have done?

MEKKA:  Yeah. I mean, I do my show but my show is singing and telling stories and talking about working with Sinatra and Bennett. It's just me…that's easy. I'm sure this show is easier for Steve to do than me because it's his story, you know? The hard part is to make them think I'm Steve.

TJ:  Well, you just think of Steve as a character, which he is. I've met Steve and he is a funny guy. A very nice man.

MEKKA:   Yes, he is! So, I'm running around now getting ready for the 15th.

TJ:  Were you trained in theatre?

MEKKA:  Actually, I was at the Boston Conservatory and studied there for a year and a half.  I got involved with a chain of dinner theatres out there called the Chateau DeVilles.

TJ:  I know them well.

MEKKA:  I quit school and went into those…I think there was four of them…and you played two months at each place.  That's a long gig. And everybody that was from New York convinced me to come to New York, so I packed up the bags and 'moved to Beverly' [reference to theme song from the Beverly Hillbillies]. I moved to New York and drove a cab and danced for six to seven hours a day. I was a janitor at the studio so I didn't have to pay for lessons. And I started getting into Broadway shows. You know what was funny was a couple of year later, the people who studied at the Boston Conservatory were my students.

TJ:  For someone who wants to get into theatre, what advice would you give them?

MEKKA:  Which is exactly what is in this show. He says, "Hey, Ma! I want to be an entertainer." And she says, "Let me getta this straight. You wanna go from-a somebody to a nobody. You gonna be a teacher so when-a you try something else, you gotta something to fall-a back on." I would strongly recommend that anyone who wants to be an actor or a performer to come to New York City.  I'm not saying that because I am here…I am saying that because if you can survive New York City, you can survive show business.  You can survive the hustle, the bustle, the back-stabbing, the rudeness. There are people here or who come here that are probably better than people here who just can't mentally handle it. This gears you up. It makes you stronger.

TJ:  It gives you a tough skin.

MEKKA:  Yeah, it gives you a tough shell to bounce over people or run over them if they get in your way.

TJ:  It's not an easy business.

MEKKA:  No, it's not. Especially with all the reality crap that's going on now. It's like, "Geez. I went to acting school for what…nothing?" If I could swallow several thousands of worms and be willing to make a fool out of myself, I could get my own TV show! Now, all of the reality stars are getting there own TV shows and they're not actors.

TJ:  Do you think this is going to turn around…all these reality shows?

MEKKA:   You know, when Survivor came on, I thought that this stuff is not going to last. Boy, was I wrong! You know why...it's capitalism. It's the way it is!  You put out something and it only costs you $2.00 to put it out and you're making thousands of dollars, you're going to keep putting more of it out.  Yeah, but what about the quality of the product. Forget about that, we're making money.

TJ:  Yeah. It would be nice to get some more quality decent shows back on TV.

MEKKA:   A lot of it is non-union so you don't have to pay residuals. I sound bitter, but I am.

TJ:  But you're not alone, Eddie. A lot of actors share the opinion. I think a shift is coming.

MEKKA:  I think the shift will coming and the reality shows will have a plot involved which will require a little acting and actors.  Actors will take the jobs even though it's against what they believe, but they have to survive. They've got to feed the kids, you know? Thank god for live theatre…they don't go for the reality stuff. You've got to perform or get off the stage. People don't pay all that money to be disappointed.

TJ:  I feel that way too.

MEKKA:  We all have to stick together so we don't feel that alone.

TJ:  So, you and Cindy Williams still keep in touch?

MEKKA:  Yeah. As a matter of fact, we were thinking about doing a play called It Had To Be You sometime next year. It's funny because when I was doing Fiddler in Ogunquit, Renee Taylor was there with the Neil Sedaka musical, Breaking Up Is Hard To Do, and we talked about it because she wrote it.  I talk to Cindy all the time. We're good friends. It's funny…when we did the show, we never even talked.  We had completely different lives and when we were on stage, we said hello and did our scenes…we were a couple [Carmine and Shirley]. So yeah, we keep in touch with each other. And Penny [Marshall (Laverne)],  I may see her at autograph sessions.

TJ:  Back to Therapy, when you read the script, did any of it hit home with you?

MEKKA:  Oh yeah! Most of the Italian stuff. And the Armenians…yeah. I mean the Armenians, the Italians and the Jewish people…we all suffered too.  There aren't many Armenian comics around. [laughing]  They survived through humor, like Tevye. So, yeah, I can relate to a lot of this stuff. I am having a lot of fun.

And the audience will too, believe me. This is a very funny show, so you don't want to miss Eddie in Steve Solomon's MY MOTHER'S ITALIAN, MY FATHER'S JEWISH & I'M IN THERAPY! playing at The Westside Theatre, 407 West 43rd Street, between 9th & 10th Aves..  Performances are Tuesday at 7:00PM, Wednesday – Saturday at 8:00PM with matinees Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 3:00PM.   For tickets call Telecharge.com, (212) 239-6200 or Visit www.ItalianJewishTherapy.com.  Ciao for now folks and remember, theatre is my life!

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TJ Fitzgerald TJ Fitzgerald has been interviewing theatre’s finest talent with BroadwayWorld.com since January 2006. He has been active in the New England Theatre scene both as a participant (acting and directing) and an enthusiast of the entertainment scene for over 40 years. He was a featured columnist writing interviews and theatre features for New England Entertainment Digest and served on the Board of the New England Theatre Conference (NETC) for several years. Some of his noteworthy interviews have included entertainment luminaries like Tony Award winners Tommy Tune, Sutton Foster, Karen Ziemba, Michael Rupert, Faith Prince, Joanna Gleason and Gregory Jbara, Tony Nominees Brad Oscar, Keith Carradine and Andrea McArdle, Oscar nominee Marsha Mason, Oscar winning songwriter Paul Williams, Adrienne Barbeau and Oscar/Emmy award winning composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz. 2009 saw a milestone for TJ as he was welcomed to the 50's. In TJ’s words, "Life is good! Everyone's got a great story to tell and I am all ears! Theatre is my life!"