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The Play's Not the Only Thing : Dinner Theaters Rely on Ever-Popular Musicals and Buffet-Style Food to Weather Tough Times

June 18, 1989|MAX JACOBSON

In an era that has overseen performance art, minimalist music and a near revolution in theater, one genre, the dinner theater, has retreated to a store of old chestnuts in an attempt to keep audiences.

It's no accident that not long after "Oklahoma!" closes at the Grand Dinner Theatre in Anaheim, it will re-open at Elizabeth Howard's Curtain Call Dinner Theatre in Tustin. And it's no accident that all but one of Orange County's four operating dinner theaters are currently running musicals. Apparently, that is what their audiences want to see.

But it's also no secret that the dinner theater has run into difficult times. Production costs have become so hefty that live musicians and all-union casts have become nearly extinct.

Meanwhile, stiff competition from other diversions keeps good seats empty. "In mid-sized cities in Ohio or Wisconsin, the local dinner theaters are hot spots," says Harlequin Dinner Playhouse resident director Lynn Seibel, a Midwesterner. "Here, there are so many other things to do."

Making matters worse is the limited response from young people. As one theater manager puts it, "We couldn't survive without senior citizens, and for them we have to keep the prices down." All of this means not only less elaborate staging, but limited talent in the kitchen as well.

Still, considering what a dinner and show for two costs these days, dinner theaters remain something of a bargain. Show tickets average between $20 and $25 per person, not including drinks, desserts and gratuity. Add about $10 apiece for those, and you have a complete evening for two for under $75. Not bad for all the baked chicken, cold salads and nostalgia you can eat.

If I had to choose a place for someone who only had time for one show, it would be the Harlequin. Why? Because this is the place that I feel best captures the spirit of the genre.

The Harlequin, at 3503 S. Harbor Blvd. in Santa Ana, is a vast, plush, 450-seat auditorium that was built specifically to be a dinner theater and it richly looks the part. There is a grand entrance-way with chandeliers, a spiral staircase leading to the showroom and, best of all, private boxes (at additional charge) from which to enjoy the show.

The food is nowhere near as spectacular, but it is adequate. The normal evening includes a buffet with such dishes as chicken in tomato-basil sauce, red snapper Dijon and other upscale offerings.

For the boxes, dinners are prepared separately. There, the menu spotlights good appetizers: among them, savory mushroom caps stuffed with Italian sausage, scallops in a light puff pastry, and spinach salad flambeed at the table. Main courses, such as scampi in a butter-garlic sauce, New York steak covered with a red-wine sauce, and medallions of veal in a floury mustard sauce, needed a bit more rehearsal. Desserts were seriously miscast, especially the bizarre zuppa inglese, a cake with meringue topping and cloying apricot-brandy filling, and a grainy, commercial-tasting chocolate mousse cake.

The theater's current production of "Annie Get Your Gun" (through July 9) is great fun, directed with suave athleticism by Seibel. It boasts first-class lighting, wonderful, vivid costumes and plenty of joie de vivre.

Tracey Williams makes a terrific, almost delicate Annie, and makes it a task to visualize someone as brassy as Ethel Merman in the role. Broadway veteran Darell Sandeen is a commanding Buffalo Bill, Joe Cardinale a wry Sitting Bull, and Joseph Hanna's Charlie a shrewdly burlesque foil. There's nothing serious about this one; it's played for laughs all the way. Just like Seibel says, "family entertainment."

The Grand Dinner Theatre, at 1 Hotel Way in Anaheim, resembles a Las Vegas show lounge. It's a multitiered auditorium with lights shimmering on all the steps down to the stage area. Shows are presented in the half-round. Two live musicians obscured by a scrim--one on percussion, the second playing a Kurzweil synthesizer--provide a sound that might best be described as distinct.

Food is served buffet-style from the stage, more Las Vegas cloning. The dishes here are surprisingly good, probably the best I tasted at the four theaters I visited. After wading through salads like three-bean, marinated cucumber and iceberg lettuce, you come to an intelligent selection of chuck-wagon dishes: meaty short ribs, fresh-tasting creamed corn, saucy barbecued chicken, potatoes steamed with the skins still on and excellent baked beans. Just beyond, a carving section supplies good baked ham and roast beef.

Desserts are good too, such as a sumptuous Haagen-Dazs mud pie, and its opposite number, a 125-calorie chocolate mousse made by Skinny Haven. The chefs take bows like actors when the buffet line closes. The only complaint is the struggle to elbow into the buffet line. Everyone crowds in at once.

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