SPRING VALLEY — Dinner theaters tend to rehash the same stage fare year in and year out. Neil Simon comedies, vintage musicals and lightweight sitcoms geared for the family trade are the bread-and-butter items on this specialized theater menu.
The Fiesta Dinner Theatre has dished out more than its share of the old reliables. But once in a while, owner Joe Stevens breaks out of the mold and opts for the slightly offbeat.
"Tom Foolery," a honky-tonk melodrama cooked up by Jim Lakin and Fred Finn, is Fiesta's latest attempt to beef up its entertainment menu. Unlike most Fiesta productions, this show was imported as-is from Las Vegas. The tomfoolery began Wednesday, and it won't let up until March 8.
"It's a little different," Stevens acknowledged. "We brought in 'Big Bad Burlesque,' but we don't usually do something like this. I was invited out to Vegas to see 'Tom Foolery' and as soon as I saw it, I knew it would be great for our audiences. It was totally new and fresh. You get tired of the same old stuff."
Consequently, "Tom Foolery" (not the same as Tom Lehrer's controversial revue of the same name) was booked lock, stock and barrel for a Fiesta engagement. Although it is new to San Diego audiences, ironically, Lakin (a longtime San Diegan) wrote the melodrama right here in town eight years ago. His producer and collaborator, Finn, whipped up the wacky musical numbers and wove them through the convoluted plot to produce the zany revue.
"I had written a melodrama for Fred Finn when he still ran the Mickey Finn Club in San Diego," a popular night spot from 1960-74, Lakin said. "It ended up sort of a mishmash of Dixieland jazz, swing, hillbilly, spirituals and ragtime music" juxtaposed raucously against Lakin's tongue-in-cheek melodrama.
Just what exactly is "Tom Foolery"? Even Lakin had trouble with that one.
"Well, it's very difficult to describe. 'Tom Foolery' is sort of a modern musical comedy revue and a melodrama. It's an off-the-wall show," he said, "and the audience gets very involved in what's happening. It's set and costumed as a melodrama. But the hero gets hit on the head and comes up as contemporary figures like Elvis Presley, Jimmy Stewart and David Lee Roth.
"The show makes no concession to time frame, even though it's all taking place in an 1860s bar. It's just whatever works, we put in."
Just as they did in the turn-of-the-century melodramas, audiences are encouraged to hiss at the villain and root for the hero and heroine.
"They boo and cheer and yell," Lakin said. "And we're very influenced by the audience's response. (The performance) is very spontaneous, and even though we follow a script, a lot of (the material) comes from the audience."
"Tom Foolery" has undergone many changes since it was first conceived. In its most recent incarnation at Las Vegas' Landmark Hotel, the show turned out to be a rollicking hit.
"We were booked for seven weeks last June, and we ended up running for seven months," Lakin said. "It was a big attraction in Vegas, and we used to get a lot of kids as well as adults. I play the villain, and I'd go down into the audience. The kids loved to yell at us. Once, a little girl kicked me in the mouth--she was so wrapped up in the show. But it's very hip, too, so kids might miss some of what's going on."
Lakin will be back as the dastardly Crudly in this production, and he's planning to remain with the show after it moves out of town (it's slated for another stint in Nevada, and possibly a tour with a cruise ship after that). But in the course of his show business career, Lakin has played many roles.
"I was the editor of the old Independent (a local newspaper that fell by the wayside years ago), and I was a writer for Hanna-Barbera. I used to do nightclub comedy and voice-overs in commercials," he said.
Lakin has chalked up some serious acting credits, including a couple of off-Broadway appearances, but he's right at home in this slapstick romp.
"We have a great company," he said. "Liz Damon (Hope Faith in this production) has a gold record . . . Steve Johnson (Wolfgang), our horn player, can play any instrument you can blow--plus piano and banjo."
Finn jumped at the chance to bring his "Tom Foolery" to San Diego, and feels confident that Fiesta audiences will respond as enthusiastically to its shenanigans as the Las Vegas crowd did.
"We've never done it in a dinner theater setting before, but there are enough people in San Diego who remember the old Mickey Finn Club, and they'll love it--and so will their kids and their grandparents," Finn said. "There's nothing offensive about it. It's just a lot of fun."