Dinner theater is an odd phenomenon. Emerging pretty much from nowhere in the early 1960s, the genre flourished through the '70s, when it often employed television stars, and began fading in the next decade. Dinner theaters tend to be associated with steam-table food and bland, smiley-faced productions; they draw a fair percentage of their audiences from school, church and civic groups, as well as local nursing homes. You have to wonder if these peculiarly American institutions will last — and if they do, will it be as anachronisms? Or will artistic directors find a way to transform the medium into something vital and thriving? The question is particularly pressing now that the Country Dinner Playhouse has closed its doors abruptly on a venue that had gone almost unchanged for over thirty years, leaving only a few dinner theaters in the area: Fort Collins's Carousel; the Heritage Square Opera House in Golden — which has won a loyal following for its lunatic take on the genre; and Boulder's Dinner Theatre.
Somewhere deep in Westword's archives — so deep you can't access it electronically — is a review I wrote of an early production by this last company. It begins something like: This performance is to theater as bubble gum is to food, as My Pretty Pony is to sculpture and as military music is to music. In those days, the acting at BDT was at a high-school level, the scenery sometimes nothing but a glittering wall of tinsel, and songs were performed to pre-recorded music, so that a singer who coughed or lost a cue would spend the next several minutes frantically chasing the melody. In the years that followed, people would periodically tell me that BDT was much improved and I should give the place another chance — a comment that caused all respect I'd ever felt for the speaker to evaporate instantly.
But, hey, Boulder is home to talented actors and discriminating audiences, and owner-director Ross Haley was willing to learn. He ultimately built a company of first-rate performers who were able to hone their talent and versatility by working together in show after show. Tech grew more sophisticated; live musicians were employed. And when Haley finally decided to retire in 2004, he recommended as his successor Michael J. Duran, who, having begun his career in Boulder, had gone on to act in New York. Duran brought big-city contacts and know-how to the proceedings, as well as a fresh eye, an instinctive loyalty to the existing company, a facility for outreach and collaboration — and an all-important understanding of what dinner theater has traditionally been, and what it might become.
The Sound of Music
Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through August 31, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.bouldersdinnertheatre.com.
Which leaves him straddling different worlds. If he mounts a production with a bit of bite, like BDT's riveting Cabaret a couple of years back, he gets angry letters from the traditional constituency, including a couple "that told me I was going to burn in hell," he says. But there were also letters praising the evening as revelatory.
The current offering, The Sound of Music, was chosen because so many patrons requested it, as well as for its family-pleasing plethora of adorable kids. But this is also the kind of dated fare that's bound to turn off the smart young people that dinner theater needs to attract — the kind of people who flocked to the first-rate version of Ragtime that just closed at BDT.
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"We're always on the edge," Duran explains. "Crazy for You sold well last winter, but the snow kept audiences away weekend after weekend, and the theater lost money during what should have been the best business season of the year. Summer is for family shows; we do smaller shows in the fall, and something a little edgier in spring." Next year, that something will be Little Shop of Horrors.
Even in BDT's excellent production, The Sound of Music remains pure treacle, with one-dimensional characters, an unconvincing plot and an oddly sugary view of the rise of Nazism. Some of the songs are very pretty — the title song, for instance, as well as "Climb Every Mountain," "I Must Have Done Something Good" and the nuns' beautiful chants. But it doesn't help that they're so over-familiar, and that other numbers — "My Favorite Things," "Sixteen Going on Seventeen," "So Long, Farewell" — are just plain icky.
Still, Scott Beyette, who directs, has cast the show well, and there are many sweet and appealing voices. Like that of Christianna Sullins, charming and light on her feet as the wayward novice, Maria. John Scott Clough provides a strong baritone as Captain Von Trapp, and he's so convincing that he actually makes the moment that — after harrumphing about discipline — he joins his children in song quite moving. Shelly Cox-Robie, for so long the company's favorite ingenue, brings subtlety and warmth to the very adult role of Elsa Schraeder. A.K. Klimpke makes go-along-to-get-along Max humorous and appealing, and Barb Reeves is a warm Mother Abbess — though her voice doesn't have the range and richness for "Climb Every Mountain." Beyette has also done a good job of directing the children, who all come across as individual and interesting, with not one cloying, self-conscious or too cute. (Famed movie critic Pauline Kael got into trouble when she dubbed The Sound of Music's film version "The Sound of Money," and asked irritably, "Wasn't there perhaps one little Von Trapp who didn't want to sing his head off, or who screamed that he wouldn't act out little glockenspiel routines for Papa's party guests, or who got nervous and threw up if he had to get on a stage?")
If any production could make me like The Sound of Music, this would be it. But I'm glad Duran keeps working to introduce more zizz into the dinner-theater format. There's no reason that the Boulder students who regularly attend the Buell's big shows shouldn't go here instead for an experience that's more intimate and often more engaging. Evolution is a ruthless thing, but if any dinner theater can emerge onto the shore, breathe deeply and evolve into something really interesting, it's the BDT. In fact, it has already embarked on the journey.