Just the words "dinner theater" are enough to make many people cringe, as if eating a full meal in a theater (or watching a Broadway show in a restaurant) is somehow inherently vile. But why should that be? If a professional director and actors are hired, why should the onstage outcome always be unpalatable, just because it's performed before people in the throes of the digestive process?
With these questions echoing, we visited the Carousel Dinner Theatre, a hulking building in Akron, where senior-citizen tour buses bristle around the perimeter like remoras on a sea cow. The show in question is Kiss Me Kate, the comical take on the backstage infighting involved in mounting a musical version of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew. Although a bit dated in its romantic approach to wife-beating (er, spanking), this warhorse is filled with enough Cole Porter musicality to float just about any production. Except, urp, this one. In the interest of full disclosure, this humble but starving critic chewed only a simple chicken sandwich -- eschewing a 14-ounce prime rib and the always edible Surf & Turf. So there is no personal gastrointestinal reason why this Kiss seemed more like a sloppy face-lick from a street wino. But there are plenty of other reasons, led by dialogue timing and song stylings, which -- either because or in spite of director Joseph Patton -- were agonizingly, torturously, spirit-corrodingly slow.
Alas, it must be concluded that a dinner theater cast and audience are entwined in a virtually unavoidable death spiral. The largely geriatric playgoers, although staring in the direction of the stage, are primarily occupied with monitoring their recently engorged digestive systems and trying to figure out why they're not about to catch a nap in their La-Z-Boy, while a Diagnosis Murder rerun flickers on the TV. Meanwhile, the performers are trying to coax a reaction from this ocean of dinner-dazed faces, bobbing under the gray-blue whitecaps of their hair. This inevitably leads to the use of ponderous, highly inflected speech patterns -- an attempt to break through the spectators' food coma.
While the reasons may be completely understandable, it still doesn't make this mess watchable. The dual lead roles at Carousel are performed by lovely Tamara Jenkins and Ross David Crutchlow, two actors with laudable stage credits, but not enough energy or CPR training to kick this cadaver back to life. In addition, Crutchlow's rich but evidently tired voice cracked and occasionally disappeared in his songs' final bars. The rest of the cast, in a subtle tribute to the U.S. Postal Service, mailed it in.
After the tedious first act, virtually everyone in attendance buried their faces in a gigantic dessert. These lightly nuanced delicacies (one was Gourmet Banana-Caramel Fried Cheesecake) seemed calculated to jolt the audience out of their stupor with a massive sugar attack. Alas, as with all sugar highs, the buzz was short-lived, and the second act slid, oh so slowly, into the same bog of banality.