Founded in 1985, the longest-running murder-mystery dinner theater outfit in Los Angeles seeks to emulate the satisfying procedural plotting of "Law & Order," but with a big dose of interactive comedy. With actors embedded in the audience, the show is very realistic, which has led to unexpected ramifications in the past. At the weekend murder mystery events the group hosts at hotels, "people break into each other's rooms," co-founder Margo Morrison says. The actors have gone overboard too: On a train-bound event, an actor posing as a real detective reported a "murder" to an Amtrak employee, bringing the locomotive to a halt for two hours.
The dinner show, every Saturday at the sparkling West L.A. restaurant Aphrodisiac, starts with a social hour. The actors, disguised as regular Joes, are there too, but it's difficult to tell who's who.
The main show takes place in the plush dining room. The first murder is surrounded by lots of hullabaloo involving popguns. A tiny woman bursts in, wearing an LAPD jacket. Feisty Anita Goodwin, a Keith & Margo veteran of 10 years, grills members of the audience and reveals a dizzying array of clues, including the unfailingly exciting ransom note. At the end, guests are allowed more time (than at other shows) to pore over the clues and unravel the intricate plot. It's indicative of the kind of fan Keith & Margo's attracts: a serious sleuth who tears into problem-solving like it's a bloody steak.
Mysteries En Brochette
Mysteries En Brochette is the light-rock station of dinner theater -- easy, unassuming and safe for work. Situated in Marina del Rey's Harbor House, a moderately classy seafood restaurant, Brochette caters to a crowd that wants to get cheeky on a Friday night but not to the point that it will embarrass Mom.
There are no embedded actors here, only performers in tuxes and gowns, using their best enunciation to play to the intimate room. Brochette founder Muriel Minot, a singing instructor, prefers to keep the action out in the open.
"The more remarkable aspects to us are the scripting, the music and choreography," she says. "When you have red herrings and simultaneous action and embedded actors, that doesn't always play to the whole room." Minot uses what she calls "hand-out characters," i.e., assigning a role to a game audience member, to get the crowd involved.
There are two murders in "Hollywood's Fatal Premiere," one of Brochette's rotating themed productions. But Brochette is more about the music, in a very round-the-campfire kind of way. There are goofy-sweet singalongs to Broadway chestnuts and well-worn radio hits. One of the highlights is Christopher Gehrman's rendition of "Trouble" from "The Music Man" -- a marvelously off-kilter version that's a little bit scat, a little bit rap.
Julie Cortez and Aldo Maldonado, a couple in their late 20s from Culver City, are here to celebrate their anniversary. "This is different from just going to a dinner or a club, but I really like it," Cortez says. "I think this means we're getting older."
Drama Queen Theater
From the very beginning, the Drama Queens are not for the faint of heart.
The effervescent hostess, a full-blooded woman in a slinky dress, christens guests with drag queen versions of their real names, and the show races off from there, flirting with full-on chaos at every turn.
The humor is sharp but friendly. "Most people want to be pushed a little bit, but I'm never mean-spirited about it," Ben Been says.
The opening social hour belongs to the queens, who publicly diss each other. The guests are encouraged to mingle as they snack on smoked salmon and fruit, and after the production gets rolling, it's a rambunctious, hyperactive hoot.
There's a dance contest involving the queens and audience members, but the highlight is easily the fierce spectacle of caricatured womanhood, the detective lieutenant. With her popgun and a cinched trench, she commands the room -- Sam Spade as channeled by Foxy Brown.
What's on the menu? After a bit of the detective lieutenant's overzealous frisking, who remembers?
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Dinner and a show
\o7A selection of the Southland scene:
Mezzanine Restaurant, 19800 MacArthur Blvd., Irvine. (949) 724-1066; www.gourmetdetective.com. $65 includes a three-course dinner, show and tax. Mellow and nostalgic, it emphasizes '20s-themed entertainment with its "Bullets Over Broadway"-style show, "Darling, You Slay Me." Bring a feather boa.
The Dinner Detective
Cucina Paradiso, 3387 Motor Ave., L.A. (866) 496-0535; www.dinnerdetective.com.$62.95 includes a four-course dinner, show, gratuity and live music after the show. Young and spunky with an emphasis on improv, the Dinner Detective offers an interactive, high-energy show. Scripts and actors rotate frequently. And there's a chalk body outline on the floor.
Drama Queen Theater