I first visited the Country Dinner Playhouse with my parents-in-law -- good, small-town, middle-American folk, who took my husband and me to see Seven Brides for Seven Brothers as a special treat. I remember that the food was the usual steam-table fare and that I was a little surprised by the professionalism of the performance, which featured good musicians and energetic actors with nice voices.
Going back now is like stepping into a time warp: Despite some ownership shifts, nothing seems to have changed in the past twenty years, and nothing much changes from show to show. There's something admirable about the Playhouse's immutable sameness: the patrons' hair, clothes and accents; the scene in the ladies' room with adolescent girls surveying their makeup in front of the mirrors; older women gently praising the actors ("so pretty," "such a nice voice"). There's the same mac and cheese and white bread and butter on the buffet, and what looks like the same man standing by the meat-carving station with a long knife, offering you your choice of ham or beef. Everyone is clean and respectable. All the shows are inoffensive. And every one of them begins with a forgettable medley by the Barnstormers, which includes a song of congratulations for anyone in the audience who might be celebrating anything and the endlessly recycled joke about how the moveable stage is safe to stand under when it's going up (appropriate sound effect), but not when it's coming down (second appropriate sound effect).
Producer Paul Dwyer knows what he's doing: You mess with the dinner-theater formula at your peril. A couple of years back, David Pritchard attempted to rethink the concept, providing high-end food, white tablecloths and waiters at his Pinnacle Dinner Theatre in Littleton, where he mounted The Rocky Horror Show. But the anarchic energy of Nick Sugar in the lead was tamed by mincing choreography; the audience was forbidden to throw things, open umbrellas or call out; and the show failed to bring in the young and the hip -- while also keeping away the usual dinner-theater constituency. Pinnacle closed. Boulder's Dinner Theatre has flirted with slightly edgy fare -- though it's odd to think of Cabaret and Chicago as edgy -- but tends to do much better financially with more traditional musicals. In a way, that's not so bad. Where would we hear Cole Porter, Lerner and Loewe, and Rodgers and Hammerstein these days if there were no dinner theater? And dinner theater doesn't do too badly by these classic songmeisters, because the performers usually know how to sing, ham it up and generally show audiences a good time.
Clue: The Musical
6875 South Clinton Street, Greenwood Village
Presented by Country Dinner Playhouse through March 4, 303-799-1410, www.countrydinnerplayhouse.com.
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The Playhouse production of Clue: the Musical boasts a truly outstanding cast. Which is good, since the music is serviceable rather than clever or melodious, and this is less a show than a big, cheerful game. Cutouts of the murder weapons -- noose, wrench, candlestick and so on -- line the theater walls; there are cards on all the tables inviting the audience to guess the killer, and the costumes are in brilliant primary colors. The dialogue is silly, but not as utterly inane as that of Nunsense. Since there's no plot and you don't need to empathize with any of the characters, these performers get to strut their stuff in any posing, gesticulating, giggle-making way they can think up, while periodically unleashing terrific singing voices.
The suave Michael E. Gold leads the proceedings as Mr. Boddy, who tells us he's going to be murdered and gives us the clues. Sharon Kay White is a fulsome delight as Mrs. Peacock. And what a pleasure to see Mark Rubald, who graced the stage at the Denver Center for so many years, actually giving something faintly resembling dimension to the stock figure of Colonel Mustard. Jordan Leigh is amazingly funny as he spews Mr. Green's mangled metaphors, and so is Jimmy Ferraro in his drag turn as Mrs. White. As for Shannan Steele -- is there anything this girl can't do? She's beautiful, graceful, charming and amusing, and she has a lovely voice. The highlight of the evening is the interrogatory tango of Susan Dawn Carson's thin-lipped Detective and Thaddeus Valdez's Professor Plum. Plum is a bit stiffer than the others, but when he cuts loose, his capering is inspired -- and so is the operatic voice that soars unexpectedly from his throat.
Although the action wears thin after a while, it quickens during the second act, and the show ends on a note of good-humored hilarity.