The name “show palace” connotes visions of some glitzy Disneyesque façade. Anticipation builds as we drive up the endless stretch of U.S. 19 zooming past so many chain restaurants that they start repeating (“Didn’t we just see a Checkers?”).
Then, there it is, looming on the right … not a Cinderella castle, but a huge warehouse with a low peaked roof and what seems like miles of beige siding.
As we cross from the parking lot through a white picket fence on the small wooden path that bridges the gravel ground cover, a series of show posters confronts us. The large handsome graphics make sure we can’t ignore the coming season.
Then we enter the theater and a happy voice guides us to one of 63 tables where we join our companions for the evening. Dinner theater is nothing if not a communal event. After exchanging pleasantries with our tablemates for the evening and getting a signature drink in the ubiquitous souvenir glass, we hear a disembodied voice calling our table number to approach the salad bar.
On the way to grab my first plate, I survey the room. It is actually much more appealing than the drab exterior suggests — although there’s a touch of odd faux elegance with numerous crystal chandeliers looking like inverted wedding cakes dotting the ceiling. Longtime Show Palace designer Tom Hansen has provided a well-executed set design made up of somewhat cliched elements. You’ve seen it all before, but it’s attractive and serves the theme well. Piano keys line the proscenium, and large LP records act as keystones on a progressive series of arches as they move upstage. A lush trompe l’oeil velvet show curtain fills the stage and sets an upbeat mood.
We arrive at the salad bar and create a plate from a choice of fresh mixed greens, hard unripe sliced tomatoes, cucumber, small pale sugar cube-sized croutons, creamy but undercooked potato salad, three bean salad, ultra-minced cole slaw, cloyingly sweet heavenly hash, bright red jello, rice pudding, plus a choice of creamy dressings.
Serving a buffet to hundreds of people at $11 a head is a daunting task. Following the salad, you return to the food area, grab your second plate and dig into the main buffet. A row of large stainless steel trays is loaded with al dente green beans almondine, soft tricolored mac & cheese, twice baked potatoes (without skins) dotted with cheese, rubbery chicken breast cacciatore, small fillets of stuffed flounder, a standout tasty meatloaf, and two long troughs of rare or well-done pre-sliced beef au jus offered by a smiling young server. There’s tartar sauce and ketchup, but much to the disappointment of my dining companion, no horseradish to accompany the beef.
One plate is enough for me, but others at my table eagerly go back for seconds. Each place at the table is set with a simple slice of iced bundt cake topped with some piped cream to begin dessert. Additionally, guests may self-serve brown sugar bread pudding with whiskey sauce that seems popular, but which I find gloppy and unappealing. Still, with your expectations clearly in check, you realize you could do much worse. However, apart from the meatloaf, the entire culinary experience is generic.
And that, unfortunately, also goes for the show, The “All New” Fabulous 50’s and 60’s Revue. The cast is mostly young and enthusiastic, with Dale Badway as the resident adult in the person of the MC as game show host. It’s “Your Hit Parade” 1959 and we’re looking back on the music of the decade and excited about the 1960s to come. There’s much youthful “up with people” enthusiasm, but the senior crowd is hard to rouse. This is the sixth Show Palace production for my table of enthusiasts, and they are not so pleased with this one.
Given the demographics of the audience, a revue of songs from the ’50s and ’60s is a safe bet. After all, successive generations know of these songs; the problem with this young cast is that they don’t know the songs — the style, context, and often, budding sexuality underpinning the music is lacking. Every song is pitched with the same earnestness and lots of unison choreography you can see coming a mile away; it’s as general as the pale croutons. When TV theme songs like Gilligan’s Island are presented in the same vein as Blowin’ in the Wind, an anti-war anthem that awoke a generation, something is out of sync. Feeling should trump crisp diction or a mellifluous, legato vocal line.
The same disconnect is true when the ensemble men, dressed in bright-colored suits with Austin Powers ruffles, sing “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” With heads together and outstretched arms, they are more Music Man than Beatles. These songs are too well-known, the original phrasing so embedded in the audience, that any attempt to reinterpret these iconic tunes falls flat. Bela Aquino is one bright spot in the ensemble whose solos land because her words connect with her heart, thereby striking the ear with refreshing specificity. The show ends, though, with an evocative and rousing “Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine” medley; playing Hair’s flower children, the cast finally rises to the occasion.
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