williamallenpepper

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IS DINNER THEATRE LESSER THEATRE? I DON’T THINK SO.

When I was six or seven, my parents took me to my first “big time” theatre experience. It was Chanhassen Dinner Theatre in Chanhassen, MN. The show was the musical “Camelot”. I wore my pale green, three-piece suit (it was the seventies), got to eat prime rib at a table with a candle on it, and drank Shirley Temples.

Then, after we stuffed ourselves, they turned off the lights and put on a show for us. To a kid, it was like being king. “Feed me! Now dance and sing! Chop chop!”

To top it off, at intermission, they brought us MORE FOOD. This time, brownie hot fudge sundaes. If they’d had an Atari 2600 and some Star Wars action figures too, I’d never have left.

The show was excellent. I fell asleep, but that was more a reflection of my age, not the performance. At least once a year after that trip, until I went away to college, the family caught a show together at Chanhassen.

As an adult, Ive only gotten to Chanhassen a couple times, but think about it often.

I never did theater in school, but as an adult, I’ve been on stage a number of times in non-musical plays. In more recent years, with little kids at home, it’s been difficult to justify the four of five night per week rehearsal life of a local theatre actor, so I’ve transitioned into writing plays instead of acting in them. Several have been produced. All of this has given me a different perspective on theatre. I still enjoy the spectacle as I did as a kid, but now I also enjoy watching shows with an eye for the technical aspects.

But once in a while, you just want to enjoy the spectacle. Recently, my wife and I got the chance to return to Chanhassen for the first time in nearly a decade. This time, for the first time, our kids were with us; one 8, the other 4. I knew it would be a nostalgic thrill for me to return, and it was. The old place hasn’t changed. I loved it as soon as we walked in, but wasn’t sure whether the kids would end up enjoying it.

We chose a matinee, because the kids are little and an 8 pm curtain after a big meal, wouldn’t fly. The show was “The Little Mermaid” and it was great. The eight-year-old, who has become a stage veteran as a dancer at the local junior theater was entranced. The four-year-old, a kinetic ball of perpetual motion who normally can’t even sit down long enough to eat a meal, was mesmerized. He sat, mouth agape, through much of the show and applauded louder than anyone. He’s a natural performer around the house and in school. We recently put him in an intro to theater acting class for kids to channel some of that energy, so, who knows? Maybe we’ll see him in a Broadway musical someday. And even if not, the experience may make him appreciate the arts a little more.

Fine arts programs are often the first to get cut in schools when they are struggling with their budgets. Why we let schools struggle with money baffles me in general, but that’s a topic for another blog. But kids get so much out of the arts – acting, singing, dancing ,writing, painting, whatever. Kids learn about teamwork, fostering creativity, focus and pride of accomplishment. Plus, it’s damn fun. Whether it’s Chanhassen or high school theater, expose your kids to this stuff. You’ll thank me for it.

And don’t skip a play just because it’s dinner theatre. A lot of people do, and I don’t know why. Serving a meal before a show has no bearing on the quality of the performance. In my limited theatre acting experience, I’ve done dinner theatre shows a couple times. As an actor, there is a different vibe in the room, and not just because you can smell the entrees. People seem more relaxed, more ready to laugh at the funny bits when they’re funny if you gave them a nice meal beforehand. What’s wrong with that? As a dinner theatre attendee, why wouldn’t I want to be pleasingly full, then see a show without stressing over the commute to the theater in between?

So, in summary, fine arts: good. Dinner theater: good. Chanhassen: good. “The Little Mermaid”: excellent. Now, close this browser window and go order some tickets online.

You’ll thank me for that too.

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