By Jeremy Preston Jonsson
Dinner Theater is a curious beast. Not quite standard theater, not quite cabaret entertainment, not quite anything else. It is its own medium. Half play, half party, all entertainment. It has its serious devotees — loyal fans who see show after show. I’m not going to write this review for them. They are the converted. They couldn’t be dissuaded from going by any review. No, this review is going to be aimed at those who might not otherwise go. Those who perhaps turn their noses up at such “lesser” entertainments. Anyone who ignores or disdains “dinner theater” does so to their own loss, as it is a format that offers a whole range of experience for actors and audiences that traditional fourth wall theater cannot.
For the uninitiated, dinner theater as it is commonly done today is an interactive theater format in which characters mingle with and interact freely with the audience. As Salty Dinner Theater does it, it’s a chaotic, colorful, loud immersive experience, a party punctuated by scripted scenes, more about laughter and fun than about story, character, or drama.
Salty Dinner’s latest offering for the Halloween season is their original take on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the story of schoolmaster Ichabod Crane in a Tarrytown, New York circa 1790. Ichabod comes to town and falls in love with the lovely Katrina Van Tassel, running afoul of the town tough guy, Abraham “Brom Bones” Van Brunt. The two compete for Katrina’s affections, and Ichabod is ultimately run out of town, pursued perhaps by the legendary headless horseman of Sleepy Hollow.
Salty Dinner’s version puts most of its emphasis on the rivalry of Brom (Jonathan Tate) and Ichabod (Chris Kucera) for the hand of Katrina (Alisha Hall), and leaves the Headless Horseman element mainly out of the story. It is included as a final note. This is perhaps a mistake, as it is the most memorable part of the story, and the show is marketed for Halloween. Including the horseman earlier and more often would have afforded opportunities for spectacle, special effects, and spooky Halloweeny thrills. The love triangle story occasionally bogs down into wordy scenes, which are not Salty Dinner’s strong suit.
What Salty Dinner is good at, and what is best about this show is:
- The looser, less scripted material.
- ·The portion of the show where audience members are put on the spot and made to say silly things, or do silly dances.
- The songs.
- The times when the audience is included.
These are the places where the show diverges from regular theater, and becomes something different. Something special. These are the parts of the evening that are never the same night to night. These are the parts that make each performance an event, a happening.
It takes a special kind of performer to pull these moments off. Someone more host than actor, more social butterfly than artist. It takes improvisational skills, conversational skills, and traditional acting skills. I was once chatting with a well known local director about the challenges of dinner theater. He said he knew of no better way for an actor to practice their craft than the fast paced banter of dinner theater. In this particular Salty Dinner Theater production, these moments are often handled by the original character of Bob, Brom Bones’ transvestite sidekick (Shantel Bingham.) She has great, funny, high energy reactions to female audience members’ declarations of love and attraction.
The production really doesn’t slow down or stop all evening. As dinner is served, then dessert, then the business of checks is attended to by wait staff, the audience is treated to songs performed by two characters: Sabrina Specter (Jamie Haderlie) and Julia Verne (Natalia Noble). These interludes serve to keep the energy up while the “acting” cast gets a break. The characters of Sabrina and Julia are connected to the show in a rather pointless fashion, but they are both capable singers. Jamie has an awesome belt, and Natalia a lovely smooth sound.
The jokes fly fast and furious in Salty Dinner’s Sleepy Hollow. They are thrown out so quickly that most of the audience probably doesn’t even catch all of them, and that’s fine. Many are groaners. Many are hilarious. Occasionally, they are brilliant gems of wit.
There are a few things I would have done differently. The production includes a lot of small snippets of narration that seem disconnected and random. There are also a fair number of pop culture references that really went nowhere, and snippets of music that were more distraction than enhancement to the action. Occasionally, when a character dropped a pop culture reference, there would be a little bit of a song played to drive the point home, as in “Get it, that’s from Breakfast Club, get it, get it?” I don’t think these are necessary. I think the jokes should stand or fall on their own. Do these things detract from the overall experience? Not really. They are things I wouldn’t have done, were I in charge, but the audience didn’t seem to mind. They ate it up, all night long
Speaking of eating, I should mention that I saw the show at Mimi’s Cafe in Murray, one of several venues that Salty Dinner performs at. The room was too dark. That’s hard for Salty Dinner to control, but there it is. The show was hard to see. Some of the other venues are better lit. Also outside of Salty Dinner’s direct control is the food. I’ve been to Mimi’s before, and for the most part, I like the food there. However, I cannot let it slide that the server told me the “French style steak” on the menu was a filet mignon. It wasn’t. It was a decidedly less expensive cut of meat. I’m a good eater, I know the difference. I know this isn’t Salty Dinner’s fault, but the dinner is part of the whole experience, so it should be commented on.
If you haven’t been to a dinner theater production, specifically a Salty Dinner Theater production, do yourself a favor and go. You theater types will be amazed. Night after night, Salty Dinner packs the house, and night after night, they send home a happy crowd, with full bellies, and exhausted funny bones. It’s an experience that should get you thinking about the nature of theater. And should, if you’re smart, expand your outlook on what’s possible in it.
Sleepy Hollow plays through October at a variety of locations from Davis County to Utah County. It’s probably best if you just visit their website for details. www.saltydinnertheater.com