The Adventure of the Dinner Theatre Debacle

“Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” Sherlock Holmes

My wife says I am a pessimist, that I never look forward to things. That’s not true. I do look forward to things, but I try to keep my expectations in check. That way, they are often exceeded and I get more out of life. I find it much better than always expecting the best and invariably getting disappointed at every turn. But even with my usual low expectations in place, nothing could have prepared me for last Friday night.

There’s this church across town that puts on a dinner theatre every spring. I happen to know about it because someone I work with goes to that church and is often involved in the shows. I’ve had the odd run-in with this church in the past. A few years ago our church choir and their church choir teamed up for a joint concert series. The idea was simple: we would do a concert at our church one weekend, and then go to the other church the following weekend and do it there.

Our church went first, and the results were disastrous. I am not even exaggerating when I say that we maybe had 12 people in the audience. Two of them were my Mom and my Mother-in-Law. The following week, they were turning people away from the door at the other church. The agreement was that each church would keep the money that made from tickets at each church. Needless to say it was a huge financial success for this other church, and what we raised didn’t even cover our gas money to go across town. They are a bit of a “dick church”, actually, when you come to think of it.

So I’ve successfully avoided going to this dinner theatre year after year. But this year was different. I felt like I probably should go. I mean, virtually everyone else has attended it at one time or another. The selling feature for me was the theme: Sherlock Holmes.

Friends of the blog will know I am a Sherlock Holmes fan, but my love is not unconditional. In fact, there are more bad interpretations out there than good, in my mind. And like a good fundamentalist, I always return to the cannon, the 56+4 if you will, to measure whatever it is that is passing itself off as “Sherlock Holmes”. Quick rundown: Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, Benedict Cumberbatch: awesome. Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Robert Downey Jr.: thank you, no.

I knew going in that it was going to be a hard sell, and I am ashamed to admit that there was a part of me that went only to gather some notes for this very blog. But the truth must be told, and I’m afraid to say that this time, the truth isn’t getting in the way of a good story, the truth is the story, plain and simple.

As it turned out, we had assigned seating. The place settings were really cute. Union Jack place mats and little pipes with the seat number in the middle. They sold wine at the back, by the glass or by the bottle, something I thought a little strange for a United Church, but there you go. A man named “Ron” was in charge of the drink table, and he would wander through out the evening up and down the aisles, reminding people in a loud stage whisper that “the bar is still open!” and he would also tell anyone who would care to listen that he was in charge of lighting. Sure enough, there he was, right in the program. But you know what? I think all he had to do was turn the lights off at the beginning of Act 1 and stick them back on at the intermission. I seriously don’t think there was anything else he had to do. I also think Ron may have been a little “touched” and maybe flipping the light switch was really all he could handle. It’s a real surprise that they left him in charge of the alcohol too.

The Set Up

The Set Up

You could tell this wasn’t this church’s first musical, and I learned later that they’ve been doing this for 15 years. All the music and scripts were written by one man in the congregation, which is a pretty amazing feat, don’t you think? It’s pretty amazing until you actually hear the music, that is. More on that later. They were very well organized, staff wise, and I learned later that one woman, “Debbie” was in charge of the kitchen and meal duties, and that she would arrive at 11 am every day to make sure everything was ready by 6:30 pm. I thought maybe I could talk to her about it, since apparently a small group of us are in charge of our own church’s turkey supper this fall (blog post to follow, surely!)

There were already pickles and bread on the table, and before long volunteers brought out large bowls of leafy salad, two bowls per table, and we were to pass it around. There were five of us from work there, and the rest of the table were made up of strangers to us. I happened to be sitting next to this older dude, “Dennis”, who was quite a talkative chap. He was going on an on about how Apple’s stock was going to be “down the tubes” before long, because they are all about innovation and they can’t keep innovating, can they? and other companies will come along and do it better and cheaper. “Apples are all over priced. Who would pay that much for a computer? But you know: the hackers don’t like the Apples, they leave the Apples alone.” I almost spoke up in defense of Apple, but I didn’t want to make an enemy of my seat-mate. I did, however, make a show of taking out my iPod Touch to check the time, and then leaving it there on the table, to let Dennis know who’s team I was on. Soon, Dennis was off being negative about something else: a recent trip to Disneyland with the ungrateful grandkids.

Once we were done our salads, we were led, table by table, out of the hall and into the kitchen where the main buffet was laid out. I grabbed a plate and was immediately confronted with this guy behind a vat of mashed potatoes. He was making noises at me like, “A looba looba liddle, a looba looba lod? A looba looba liddle, a looba looba lod?” I had no idea what was going on, but I smiled and said, “SURE!” and that got me a big plop of potatoes on my plate. I found out later that he was actually saying “Do you want a little, or do you want a lot?” but I couldn’t make any of it out. Then there were perogies, stuffing, coleslaw, bean salad, turkey, and just when you think you’re through the line, there’s a woman carving up ROAST BEEF. I mean, this church buffet had everything! I was so taken with the roast beef that when I was asked where I wanted gravy, I just, “You decide!” to a confused lady. “No sir! You tell me where, you’re the one who has to eat this, not me!” She had sass, and I liked her. I told her just to stick it everywhere, and she did with a smile.

I would have liked to have seen a hairnet on this chap, actually.

I would have liked to have seen a hairnet on this chap, actually.

The meal itself was the highlight of the evening by far. When we got back to our table, our salad plates were removed. My seatmate Dennis had moved on to describing a funeral he had recently attended and all the bad luck this one family had. “And so his wife got breast cancer and died, and then his brother was carjacked in Florida and that was on the same trip where their passports were stolen…” Classic Dennis.

As the meal wrapped up, I noticed some music in the air. I assumed that it was recorded, but then I saw some creepy looking guy in the corner on a Casio keyboard, tinkling away, staring hard out over the crowd as we ate. He sort of looked like a young Quentin Tarantino with glasses, and he gave me “the no feeling” right away. He wouldn’t break eye contact with the diners, but you have to hand it to him, he was pretty talented. He wasn’t using any sheet music. As it turned out, he was the son of the composer, and has been doing the live music for these shows all these years. The whole play has this incidental music playing in the background, telegraphing moods and action, like a silent film.

He moved to the front of the stage and welcomed people to the evening. He told us that dessert would be served at the intermission. (Intermission? Jesus! This thing had 2 acts? God DAMN I was hoping for a “one acter” but no luck). I really couldn’t tell if he was a nice guy playing “creepy” as a role, or whether he was a creepy trying hard to be affable. I’m still not sure. But all I knew was that this musical was about to be underway.

The curtain rose on a Victorian Street scene. My first thought was that this looked like one of Max Fisher’s plays from Rushmore. There must have been 30 people on stage, including our co-worker. It was stunning! It looked great, and I relaxed a little, thinking, “well, this is off to a good start, isn’t it?” But I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The first song, “Baker Street” tried to introduce all the major characters, with Sherlock himself making an appearance at the end. I felt a little bad giving this show a bad review, knowing that my employee was in it, but after seeing how little he had to do with it, I don’t feel so bad. He was in this first number, and then we didn’t actually see him again until the end where he inexplicably shows up at Queen Victoria’s summer cottage for the finale. In a two and a half hour show, he was onstage for about 5 minutes, which is actually a kind of a blessing when you think about it.

Was it horrible? It was.

Do I need to bother you with the plot? Probably not. I’m not sure if I can adequately relate the plot to you anyway, because it seemed pretty convoluted. This is dinner theatre, people! Just some snappy tunes and a few puns and you’re halfway there! Don’t over think it. I don’t know if I can go into all the details of the things that were wrong; it would take too long. Maybe I should just focus on the things I liked? I liked the meal, and the dessert. In fact, anytime there was no singing or acting going on, I was happy. Oh, and the three kids playing the Baker Street Irregulars were really great. I loved them, and wished they were given more to do. Oh, and I had a crush on one of Inspector Lestrade’s constables. She sort of had this “Eva Green” thing going on. Too bad they stuck a big fake moustache on her for the whole thing.

The maddening thing was that whomever wrote it actually did a little research into the “Sherlock Holmes” mythology and included some of the major tropes. You had Inspector Lestrade, Irene Adler, Professor Moriarty, Mrs. Hudson and even the Baker Street Irregulars, and yet one of the early songs was called “Elementary, my dear Watson”, which any fan can tell you that Sherlock Holmes NEVER UTTERED THAT PHRASE. So it lost me right there and never won me back.

And the length! After a full on turkey dinner (with ROAST BEEF, don’t forget), I think most people would have enjoyed maybe an hour’s show, but the first half was chock full of nine songs, clocking in at an hour an a half. After an all too brief break for banana and strawberry trifle, we were at it again. The second half had only 4 songs listed, but that was misleading. The second half was much more dialogue driven, and the songs (I nearly wrote “longs” instead of songs, paging Dr. Freud!) were spread out. As bad as the first half was, the second half was even worse. There was some skulking about to be done in the woods by the main characters, but since there was zero budget for sets, the audience was treated to a blank stage and just had to listen to the actor’s voices as most of the action happened literally “off stage”. This would have been an interesting technique if it was used sparingly, but it felt like nearly half of the second half was spent this way, and I eventually had to just close my eyes and pray for the end. Everyone seemed visibly shaken by the time the final curtain fell, and I can speak for myself when I say I felt like I aged 10 years in that church basement. The final insult was that the last song only had one verse and a chorus, but the company sang it over and over and over again, almost as a “fuck you” for coming.

Still, it could have been worse. A coworker was telling me today that she went last year and someone passed out during the show. Someone in the show passed out during the show, while they were on stage. Did they stop the production? No sir. They just kept singing and dancing around the poor son of a bitch until some stagehand pulled him backstage. My coworker was mainly concerned with the thought that if they had to call an ambulance, then they would NEVER get out of there. As it turned out, the ill actor had forgotten to take his medication and he was eventually fine. I don’t blame him. If I was in one of those musicals, I would have probably stopped taking my meds too.

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