It's near the beginning of Five Course Love, and we're in a gaudy barbecue joint with a big "You'll (Heart) Our Wings" sign on the wall. The sound system — as always in the Garner Galleria Theatre — is set way, way too loud, so that it distorts both high and low notes; Jordan Leigh as the waiter is mugging and grimacing mercilessly; and there's a dumb duet in progress about a cowgirl named Barbie who's rejecting the poor guy who thought he'd set up a blind date at a sushi bar only to find himself here because she can only go for a man named Ken. I'm slouching low in my seat, thirsty as hell, wondering why no one's serving any drinks, and wishing like crazy I hadn't come.
Five Course Love consists of five musical scenes set in five different restaurants, each one a broad parody — author Gregg Coffin spoofing stereotypes while shamelessly using and abusing them. In addition to the barbecue place with its country-Western music, there's an Italian restaurant where a mob wife is cheating — very operatically — on her husband; a cozy German restaurant intended as a place of refuge for the Eleanor Rigbys of the world that ends up hosting a dominatrix and her men (aren't all German women dominatrices? I mutter to myself); a Mexican cantina where a sweet maiden must decide between the waiter's true love and the lustful excitement offered by an outlaw; and finally, a standard '50s diner with a doo-wop ambience and a kindly owner called Pop. Three actors whip through all the roles, donning and doffing costumes — also wigs, in the case of Sarah Rex — and assuming jokey accents.
But somewhere in the middle of the Bumsen-Kratzentanz — a dance performed to a jolly, rollicking beat by the dominatrix and her clients, and every bit as silly as it sounds — something strange happens: I hear myself laughing. And I keep laughing as the evening moves along. I steal an embarrassed, sideways look at my companion, and he's laughing, too. As I keep listening, I have to admit that some of the songs are musically witty (and very well played by musical director Troy Schuh and his musicians), some balls-out daft-amusing, and others really very lovely: the ballad about refuge from the rain sung by the German waiter, for example; the love song "Blue Flame"; even the dominatrix's comic-wistful, Brecht-inflected "Gretchen's Lament." As it turns out, many of the best songs in this 85-minute entertainment come in the last couple of acts, and it's also only at the end that you learn there's a dramatic reason for a lot of the hokeyness you've been witnessing.
Five Course Love
Presented by Denver Center Attractions through June 19, Garner Galleria Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.
Leigh plays the waiters in all of the restaurants, and though his mugging strikes me as excessive, he sings well and has good comic timing. Daniel Langhoff transforms effortlessly from Matt, a sad-sack loser in the dating game, to Italian gangster to Mexican rebel, and displays an impressive singing voice in the process. And Sarah Rex...ah, Sarah Rex. She's one of those rare female comics who combine good looks — tall, blonde, graceful, impossibly long and supple legs — with a streak of pure lunacy, and she possesses the kind of gutsy vulnerability I associate with Gilda Radner (whom, oddly, she slightly resembles). Listening to these three singing — whether separately, in duets or as a trio — is pure pleasure.
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Five Course Love is definitely diverting. But remember to get your drinks before you sit down.