One man's meal is another man's show. It's especially true of dinner theater, that rite of food and fun. With holidays hard upon us -- maybe invading family, too -- there's hardly an easier way to feed and entertain.
Half a dozen suburban dinner theaters, plus a few cabarets in town, are currently offering dollops of cuisine and servings of performing arts. For $20 to $30 a person, you can have more than your fill: a prime rib on your plate, perhaps, and a chestnut on the stage.
What these shows lack in artistry, and what the heavy food wants in subtlety, can be made up in good cheer. We recently sampled three such spots for a pleasant, painless evening.
At the HARLEQUIN DINNER THEATER in Rockville, the production is "Showboat," the Kern/Hammerstein classic about life on the Mississippi. At D.C. SPACE, a cabaret downtown, it's "She Loves Me," a musical of love and intrigue among folks who sell perfume. And at the BROOK FARM INN OF MAGIC in Chevy Chase, the "Magicomedy Cabaret" is serving up sleight-of-hand with a heaping helping of slapstick.
Brook Farm might be the ticket if you're a sucker for tricks and illusions. The act goes on in a room dominated by an outsize poster of a laser-eyed swami pondering a crystal ball. "Ask Alexander," reads the legend, adding that he's "the man who knows."
The other night, as big-band tunes blared down from on high, two magicians worked the house and the waiters did the same. The waiters all wore running shoes and sprinted with their orders. The resident magicians, less harried, strolled among the tables with card tricks and minor feats. All this -- nothing too fancy, with borscht-belt bonhomie -- was by way of prologue to the raucous main event.
Bob Sheets and Steve Spills may not be Houdinis, but they're possessed of a manic spirit that's occasionally hard to resist. Though their jokes sometimes run to smarmy -- "Somebody was looking for you earlier," Spills told a fellow named John -- they know how to handle a crowd, the unrulier, the better. "You guys may laugh now," Bob Sheets said after a an impressive bout of fire-eating. "But 5,000 years ago, you would have made me chief."
In tricks ranging from levitation to needle- swallowing to linking audience-members' wedding bands -- using such props as toilet paper rolls -- the duo goes more for yuks than mystique. Sheets dresses up in a rabbit suit. Spills spits water from his mouth. "Huppo! Hey! Hah!" they cry over and over.
In the comfy environs of D.C. Space, Off the Circle Theater Company is presenting "She Loves Me," a 1963-vintage musical comedy by Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick and Joe Masterhoff, based on a play by Hungarian Miklos Laszlo. The staging's a tad cluttered, and the singing's uneven, but it's an appealing-enough show that leaves a nice afterglow.
The story -- which moves along in song, but falters with stiff talk -- follows a romance between two sales folk in Maraczek's Parfumerie in New York. They bicker in the flesh, even as they write each other love letters (as neither finds out till later) under the guise of "Dear Friends."
Bock's tunes are engaging, Harnick's lyrics have a measure of wit, while the cast handles the big songs with aplomb. In solo singing, Joanne Schmoll as a lovesick sales clerk excells, but Bill Krause as her antagonist and admirer should probably fake it, a la Rex Harrison, a bit more than he does.
Anthony "Chip" Brienza, who doubles as the shop's cynical lifer and a waiter in a bistro, supplies some funny touches, especially in the song "A Romantic Atmosphere," which has him strutting about the Cafe Imperiale -- and then through the D.C. Space audience -- with a red sash around his head.
The citified folk at D.C. Space, in the heart of the downtown art district, don't much like that word, "dinner theater," but the place still passes for one. The show's most glaring problem, in fact, is that waiters and actors both must push their way between tables -- causing confusion as it occasionally breaks the mood.
The Harlequin's "Show Boat" is a full- dress production with clever set changes, rousing songs and fairly clumsy acting and dancing. Most of the time it plays like community SRO, with the "actor/waiters," as these busy folks are called, mostly half- suited to their calling.
Except Alvy Powell. As Joe, he of "Ol' Man River," Powell has star quality more like Broadway than dinner theater. It seems unlikely that this charismatic performer, with his faultless diction and peach of a voice, will be hanging around the Harlequin for long. He makes "Show Boat" well worth the excursion. A MEAL AND A SHOW D.C. SPACE -- At 443 Seventh Street NW, "She Loves Me" through January 8. Dark Friday and Saturday. Resumes its normal Thursday-through- Saturday schedule after this weekend. Call 347- 4960. BROOK FARM INN OF MAGIC -- "The Magicomedy Cabaret Dinner Show," Friday, Wednesday- Thursday at 8, Sunday at 7:30. Dark Christmas. Openings for New Year's Eve 5:30-8:30 show. At 7101 Brookville Road, Chevy Chase. Call 652-8820. BURN BRAE -- "The Music Man" through January 2 in Burtonsville. Friday dinner 6:15; show 8:15. Sunday, dinner at 4; show 6. Tuesday-Thursday, dinner 6; show 8. Wednesday matinees, dinner 11:30, show 1. Dark Christmas. "On Golden Pond" opens January 12. Call 384-5800. HARLEQUIN -- "Showboat," through January 30. Friday, Sunday and Tuesday-Thursday, dinner 6:30, show 8:30; Sunday matinee, lunch noon, show 1:30. Wednesday matinee, lunch 11:30; show 1. Dark Christmas. New Year's Eve "Variety Show." "Pirates of Penzance" opens February 2 at 1330 Gude Dr., Rockville. Call 340-8515. HAYLOFT -- "Pool's Paradise." Dark Friday. Saturday Christmas dinner at 2:30, show at 4. Sunday dinner at 6, show 7:30. "Blithe Spirit" opens Tuesday and repeats Wednesday and Thursday in Manassas. Dinner at 7, show 8:30. Call 631-0230. KING'S JESTER -- "Vanities" through January 29. Thursday-Saturday, dinner 6:45, show 8; Sunday, dinner 5:45, show 7. Dark Christmas. New Year's Eve cabaret with breakfast and dancing at 8049 13th Street, Silver Spring. Call 946-2077. LAZY SUSAN -- "Camelot," in Woodbridge, Virginia. Friday-Sunday and Wednesday-Thursday, dinner 7, show 8:30; Sunday, dinner 6, show 7:30. Open Christmas, dark Friday and Sunday. New Year's Eve Gala. "Arsenic and Old Lace" opens January 7. Call 550-7384. PETRUCCI'S -- "I Do! I Do!," through January 9 in Laurel, Maryland. Friday, dinner 7:30, show 9; Saturday, dinner 7, show 8:30; Sunday, dinner 6, show 7:30; Wednesday-Thursday, dinner 7, show 8:30. Dark Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. New Year's Eve Gala. "Same Time Next Year" opens January 14. Call 725-5226. TOBY'S -- "Brigadoon," through January 30 in Columbia, Maryland. Shows Friday-Sunday and Tuesday-Thusday; dinner at 6:30, show 8:30. " A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" opens February 2 and alternates weeks with "They're Playing Our Song" beginning February 9. Dark Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year's Day. New Year's Eve cabaret with breakfast. Call 596-6161.