Friday, September 12, 2008

Dinner and a Show's a classic combo. Everyone loves gathering for a meal, either before or after a live performance. Beforehand, there's the anticipation of watching a performance which will be unique unto itself, or apres, the delight of gathering for late-night supper to dissect the show, and perhaps run into one of the performers (at the bar, of course).

But try putting Dinner and a Show together, in the same building or, god forbid, in the same room, and we run away in horror.

Dinner Theatre has a bad rap, only partially deserved. Who can forget that hilarious sequence in Soapdish, in which Kevin Kline is portraying Willy Loman in a dinner theatre production of Death of a Salesman?

It's true that in most situations, Dinner Theatre fails at both: the dinner is inedible and the theatre is mediocre.

Here in the DC area, I'm told that there were half a dozen or more Dinner Theatres years ago. These days, only two or three remain, the most prestigious of which is certainly Toby's. I have seen three shows there in the 12 years I've been a resident. My first trip there (I was accompanying a Helen Hayes judge, so I got in free), the show was Jekyll and Hyde, a piece which will never be a classic. Though I dislike that kind of Pop-Opera immensely, I will say that this production seemed quite good. (I was not the only one who thought so; the production received several Helen Hayes Nominations, and director Toby Orenstein won the award.)

I admit that I was taken aback when our waiter approached, and he was one of the actors in the show. This is not always the case in Dinner Theatre, but at Toby's, your waiter is also your entertainer. For this particular show, I knew only one fellow in the cast, and wouldn't you know it, he was my waiter.

This is a bit disconcerting for me, to be face to face with an actor in the show I am about to see. I am from the Old School, I suppose, in which the actors are forbidden to interact with, or even to be glimpsed by, the audience before the performance. Even more disconcerting, the actor returns to your table at intermission, to see how you are liking the show, and to collect his/her tip. All very, very unsettling to me.

But I guess civilians don't mind, and even like it, since Toby's has been doing this so long.

My second trip to Toby's did not involve a meal; it was to catch their kids' show, Suessical Jr., about which I have already written.

My third trip to Toby's was this week, to see The Producers. It was a Wednesday matinee, and I had called ahead to insure I could purchase a "show only" seat. These seats are half the price of the regular entrance fee; of course, you don't get to eat. No biggie for me, as I recalled from my first visit to Toby's that the food, while respectable, must charitably be called Generic Comfort Food. Meats, potato dishes, iceberg salads, and the like. Nothing wrong with any of it, and indeed, it seemed to suit the taste of the audience members, all of whom were senior citizens.

I wish the box office lady had told me to arrive a little later. When I called, she proclaimed I had to be at the theatre "absolutely No Later than 11:30!" I'm a dutiful boy, and arrived at 11:15, so I spent some time outside enjoying the day. Well, when I finally bought my ticket and sat down, the elders were still making their way to the long buffet set up in the middle of the room. Toby's, you see, is a theatre in the round, or a restaurant in the round, or perhaps more accurately, a cafeteria in the round. The audience is seated at tables surrounding the playing area, which is also the serving area.

I have a hunch that the theatre shoots for an "estimated" curtain time for the show, considering the variables of people returning to the buffet for second helpings. As such, I sat at my table and watched the seniors eat for almost an hour. I was greeted by a very personable young waitress, from whom I ordered a glass of their house white wine.

Don't ever do that at Toby's. You'll get the most sugary sweet Chablis imaginable. The price is only $3.50, but you get what you pay for...

Finally, the dining portion of the event was over. Kitchen staff appeared and unplugged various heating instruments, cleared the buffet, and dismantled it. As I said, the serving area is also the playing area, so after the sections of the buffet were removed, the stage was swept and mopped. The waiter/actor folks continued to attend to their tables, clearing plates, refilling coffee, and selling booze. They finally excused themselves to go backstage to get into costume and makeup.

The show at Toby's is really an all-day, or all evening, affair. The audiences spend several hours eating, and then several more hours watching the show, which is introduced by an MC who gives a lengthy (20 minutes at this performance) curtain speech. Add in the half-hour intermission, and you may get the feeling you are on an overnight camping trip.

Finally, over an hour after I sat down, the show began. This ensemble did a bang-up job executing some pretty intricate tap choreography. I've had a bit of experience with performing a musical in the round, as I played the Devil in Damn Yankees in an arena staging in Los Angeles. So I know the challenges of choreographing big numbers so everyone on all sides has something to look at. Toby's does it very well.

There was a bit of irony during Act One's biggest production number, in which the full ensemble is dressed, identically, as Little Old Ladies (think Andy Griffith's Aunt Bea). They performed a hilarious tap routine with walkers, in front of an audience which included several dozen people who had themselves arrived using walkers. The oldsters did not seem to take offense.

The leading performers were all creditable, and two were even more so. Jeffrey Shankle, playing Leo Bloom, the milque-toast accountant, and Adam Grabau as Franz Leibkind, the Nazi playwright, were especially impressive.

The gal playing the female lead, Elizabeth Rayca, turned out to be my waitress, and she had a belt which took the roof off the joint.

Toby's is completely non-union these days, though I've been told she occasionally hired an Equity actor or two in the past. Many of the leading actors in the DC area began their careers at Toby's or other local dinner theatres, before moving on to the bigger Equity houses. Seeing The Producers reminded me of my own experiences in dinner theatre in LA, about which I will go on and on in the next blog. You can hardly wait, can you?

As for this experience, I enjoyed Toby's production of The Producers immensely, though I wish it had not taken four hours to do so.