It's a dinner theater.
It's a dance club.
Stop--you're both right: Stars, a new entertainment venue in Rockville, is a chow-biz with a different twist.
As with other dinner theaters, you get a full meal with the admission, but as soon as the show is over, a crew furiously clears out the seats to reveal a polished-wood dance floor for folks who care to join a dancers-only crowd for an evening of swing, Latin, country-western or ballroom romping.
Last Thursday, while the show proceeded on the main stage, a gang of dance fans practiced salsa steps in a soundproof room at the back of the house.
Stars was created by Bruce and Martha Hart Johns, a Rockville couple, who are hoping to attract audiences like those who frequented the same theater in years past. Dinner-theater fans will recall the old Harlequin Dinner Theatre that operated out of the space until 1994, when it was eventually taken over by the Junction Nightclub, which offered a dance floor to happy hoofers from all over the area.
It's a fresh approach to entertainment, and the Johnses are committed to producing works by new playwrights, along with the more-famous Broadway musicals.
In mixing theater with the dancing, Stars runs into some inevitable snags. The entire dinner is served (and most of the tables cleared) before the curtain goes up, and much of the audience must leave the tables and sit in chairs on risers. Also, those who are interested only in dancing, of course, must wait until the curtain goes down before they can hit the dance floor. Eventually, solutions may emerge to such glitches.
Meanwhile the opening show, "Baby," (one of the Broadway offerings) is performed with excellent acting and singing, to a fine-sounding, seven-piece band conducted from the keyboard by Christopher Moscatiello.
Unfortunately, the script is a little too happy and peppy to satisfy everyone's taste.
Written in the early '80s by Sybille Pearson (with music by Richard Maltby Jr. and lyrics by David Shire), "Baby" is the saga of three couples facing the prospect of childbirth. There's the college-age couple, Lizzie and Danny, unmarried and just starting out. Pam and Nick, a slightly older couple in their 30s, are struggling to conceive a child. And Arlene and Alan, in their 40s, suddenly find themselves preparing for an unexpected bundle of joy to add to their brood of adult children.
Have you ever been to a party and run into people who talk about nothing but their own children? That's what it's like to sit through "Baby"--except these folks do a lot of singing.
Director and choreographer Keith Marrapodi does an impressive job with the material he has to work with. The show is fast-paced, so it's much less painful than it might have been. He even manages to coax some humanity out of the characters among the sentimental, family-value-laden dialogue that becomes as obvious as an unchanged diaper.
And the 16-member cast is full of energy, particularly the six principal members.
Janey Richards as Arlene gives a heartfelt performance as an older woman who wrestles with the mixed feelings her pregnancy brings on. John Stevenson, as her husband, Alan, belts out his tunes with a powerful singing voice.
Leigh Jameson and P.J. Simmons, as Pam and Nick, are able to elicit sympathy and laughs from the audience for the plight of their characters.
And Benjamin Bedenbaugh and Keara Hailey even make the youngest couple, Lizzie and Danny, likable. Hailey delivers a show-stopping performance of one of the show's forgettable tunes, "The Story Goes On."
Justin Lioi provides the best comic relief as a harried doctor who gives Pam and Nick advice on how to get the job done.
Of course, many people in Thursday's audience seemed to enjoy the entire show, and the departing crowd offered comments such as, "that was cute."
If "Baby" doesn't sound like your cup of formula, wait until Sept. 23, when Stars opens with the witty revue of pre-rock music, "Forever Plaid."
"Baby" continues Wednesdays through Sundays, through Sept. 19, at Stars Galaxy Stage, 1330 E. Gude Dr., Rockville. It's a little hard to spot from the road, so look for the landmark record shop above the theater with the sign "Joe's Record Paradise." Tickets are $31.50 to $39.50, depending on day of show; show-only tickets available for $20, except Saturdays. Call 301-610-5201 for information and reservations.