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Call It Fate; 2 Dinner Theaters Are Featuring 'South Pacific'

July 01, 1988|DAVID COLKER | Times Staff Writer

Some enchanted evening you can eat "barbecue selections" out of a Styrofoam box, wrap yourself in a blanket to ward off the cold and watch performers in Vegas-style Polynesian outfits and Eva Gabor-style wigs sing and mug their way through "South Pacific."

On another enchanted evening you can have a Swedish smorgasbord while watching a troupe of actors in homemade sailor suits and plastic-fruit-covered hats sing and dance--each to his own interpretation of the choreography--through "South Pacific."

And in the San Fernando Valley you can do it all in the same weekend.

Call it fate, but there are two local dinner theaters featuring the beloved Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein-Joshua Logan musical. Both cost about $20 to attend, including dinner. Both feature some actors who can sing on key and others who cannot. Both say something about theater in the suburbs.

Debut Show

"This is not just a dinner theater," said the effervescent Tommy Finnan, who, with his wife Jan co-owns the new outdoor Starlight Dinner Theater in Whizin's Mall in Agoura Hills. The theater, which sits in an open area near Lumber City and Albert's Pet Cages & Supplies, is decked out in a South Seas World War II motif in honor of its debut show.

"Jan and I do not like to do anything that's ordinary. What we do is extravaganza. We plan to take the classic Broadway musicals, which I love, and combine them with what we know through our experience of producing big shows, and give people a full evening's professional entertainment. We want to make it an event for people, a party atmosphere."

A short freeway drive to the west is Woodland Hills' Swedish Inn restaurant, the home of the Showboat Dinner Theater production of "South Pacific." Mike Monahan, the founder and managing director, is there two hours before curtain overseeing a rehearsal of a young actress, Crystal Sloat. She quickly runs through the role of Liat, the French-speaking island siren of "Bali Ha'i."

Daughter of a Minister

"The girl who was supposed to play Liat is the daughter of a minister," the mild mannered Monahan explains, settling into one of the Swedish Inn's red Leatherette booths.

"Her father didn't want her to play the part on Sunday nights. So Crystal, who normally plays one of the nurses, is stepping in."

It's an ecumenical production. Until Wayne Gross, who plays Commander William Harbison in the show, joined the Showboat troupe, his only theatrical experience was warming up the audience for celebrity night at his temple.

During the opening weekend of Monahan's production last month, Tommy and Jan Finnan were among the audience at the Swedish Inn. It was not just a friendly visit of competitors paying their respects, even though both Monahan and the Finnans emphatically say that they do not feel they are rivals. Both parties say that the fact that they booked "South Pacific" at the same time was a coincidence and that they wish each other the best.

But when the show was over, the Finnans contacted the actor Monahan had cast in the key role of Lt. Joseph Cable. With the enticement of a salary, they convinced the actor to leave the Showboat production and be their Lt. Cable for the Starlight "South Pacific" that was to open a few weeks later.

No Hard Feelings

Monahan insists he was not upset.

"Good heavens, no," he said with a laugh. "I can't blame an actor for wanting to go where the money is."

The incident illustrates the differences in the backgrounds and aspirations of the two dinner theater operations.

Monahan, who came to Los Angeles in 1956 with hopes of an acting career (he spent two seasons as Eleanor Donahue's boyfriend on "Father Knows Best"), loves community theater and has organized several amateur troupes. His Showboat company has been performing year-round for six years at the Swedish Inn, and, in keeping with the long tradition of community theater, no one connected with the troupe, including Monahan, has ever been paid for their work. Monahan supports himself by teaching acting at Pierce College, and with his wife he runs a theater school for children.

Tickets Cover Cost

The cost of putting on a Showboat production, which ranges from $10,000 to $15,000 for a six-week run, is covered by ticket sales. On the rare occasion that there is a profit, the money goes toward the next production. Actors don't even get a free buffet on the nights they perform, but they do get a cut rate.

"Maybe it's a cliche," Monahan said, "but we do it for love."

The Finnans' ambitions are more commercial. A cousin to Ed Sullivan, Tommy has always leaned toward the razzmatazz brand of entertainment. On a hallway wall of their Agoura Hills home are photographs of his nightclub/casino/cruise ship revues that played in Cairo, Puerto Rico, Singapore, Johannesburg, Bangkok, Portugal, Hong Kong, Hawaii and many other spots. Most feature a chorus line of statuesque women in scant, exotic costumes. Jan, who was the lead singer in several of the revues, is pictured in a spangled outfit and feather boa.

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