Michael Motroni runs along the bar during a performance of "Moulin… (Christina House, For The…)
Los Feliz, one of the crown jewels of L.A. hipsterdom, has long been known as a hotbed of underground music, film and art, but not so much for its blithe way with musical theater. Which is likely why a new series of dinner shows at Vermont Kitchen & Bar is playing weekend after weekend to a sold-out room.
Sometimes the people just want to be entertained in an unironic way — one that doesn't involve spirit animals, unicorn iconography or Charles Shaw.
The series, called "For the Record," is a mixture of cabaret and dinner theater but doesn't fall easily into either category. That's because each show is tailored around the music, and bare-bones plots, of films by a particular director. Through the first weekend in June, that director is Baz Luhrmann.
The show, created by producer-director Shane Scheel and musical director Chris Bratten, features talented performers (many with Broadway résumés) singing songs from "Romeo + Juliet," "Strictly Ballroom" and "Moulin Rouge." And since Luhrmann specializes in bringing edgy, unexpected modernity to classic tales, the entertainment is very pop 'n' roll.
Intriguing renditions of timeless tunes such as "When Doves Cry," "Roxanne," "Rhythm of the Night" and "Time After Time" are performed on every possible open surface inside Barre, vt (the small lounge just off Vermont Kitchen, which serves as the main restaurant). Actors shimmy and jump across the bar, croon beneath a deer's head at the back of the room, sullenly emote from barstools and dance dexterously on both the main stage and a devilish little riser in the center of the room that will trip you if you're not careful.
Quarters are tight. And that's the fun of it. With a cave-like ceiling, a mess of tightly packed tables and dim lighting, Barre, vt feels like part Parisian boîte and part underground New York City tavern.
And that's just how Scheel likes it.
"I don't ever want it to feel like it's dinner theater," he says. "I'm not asking people to come and experience 'The Music Man.' "
The show can be uneven at times. "Moulin Rouge," with its abundance of corsets and high-energy numbers, casts a formidable shadow over the more mild-mannered rendition of "Romeo + Juliet," which errs on the side of saccharine. But the quality of the acting makes up for this imbalance, as does the overall experience.
Affable waiters bob and weave through the room serving pan-seared mahi-mahi, juicy rib-eye steaks, crisp flatbreads piled with fresh vegetables and cheese and creative absinthe cocktails. Eye candy is as abundant as the booze, in the form of a live band, flexible dancers and sexy costumes.
Standout performances include newcomer Michael Motroni, who is searingly visceral as Harold Zidler; Darryl Semira ("Mamma Mia!" and "Bombay Dreams" on Broadway), who oozes charm and charisma as Romeo and the Duke; Ginifer King ("Gypsy" on Broadway, opposite Bernadette Peters), whose powerful voice and striking figure overwhelm the small stage; and the sultry persona and soulful presence of Dionne Gipson (a songwriter, she co-wrote songs with Q-Tip and Babyface).
The show has begun to outgrow its humble beginnings, and plans are in the works to knock down the wall between Barre, vt and Vermont Kitchen so that the venue can offer its shows to more people.
Vermont Kitchen & Bar owners Wayne Elias and Chris Diamond are 100% behind the plan. Elias adds that Vermont will host other shows besides the "For the Record" series. There's already an adult spelling bee (you take a shot if you misspell a word), and soon there will be a comedy night, and perhaps performances by local and touring bands as well as big-name solo acts. Then there's Rockwell, vt, a separate lounge and bar with a club vibe, which is located behind the restaurant.
Still, "For the Record" remains the main attraction when it comes to entertainment. The series began this summer with "Tarantino in Concert," which was a huge crowd-pleaser. Quentin Tarantino even came in one night with Rosario Dawson and loved it, says Scheel.
"He stayed after, and we talked until 4 in the morning."
That show — which stars Tracie Thoms, who was in the films "Rent," "The Devil Wears Prada" and Tarantino's own "Death Proof" — now is being revamped and will play at a 2,500-seat venue at the South by Southwest film and music festival next year.
Luhrmann is the third in the series (the second featured the 1980s-centric nostalgia of John Hughes), but it's the first one that Scheel feels has achieved the kind of technical quality that he'd wanted.
"Shane picks directors that any age can relate to, whether you're 21 or 60," says Elias. "People are looking for more than just a nice atmosphere. They want to be wowed."