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Dinner theater opens with minor success

| Tuesday, April 9, 2002

An attractive new theater space opened Friday night that gives theatergoers a brand new option.

Executive producer Gary Bianchin and his wife, Debra, have transformed the late-19th century gymnasium of the former St. Francis de Sales parish school in McKees Rocks into the Canterbury Dinner Theatre. It's a bright and comfortable space that blends many of the gymnasium's architectural details — cast iron pillars and railings — with up-to-the-minute patron facilities such as modern restrooms and on-premises patron parking.

It also adds an element long missing from the area's theater menu — dinner theater. This dedicated space allows patrons to park once, settle down at their tables and enjoy dinner and a show as a single, seamless experience. Tables for four or six patrons surround the stage on three sides and at two levels in intimate proximity to the performers.

The cost for dinner, show and free parking — $40 on Fridays and Saturdays and $39 on Sundays — is less than the cost of an orchestra seat at many area theaters. It's certainly an economical option for those looking for an inexpensive night on the town.

But, as with all bargains, this one comes with compromises.

The production of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" that opened the new theater understandably lacks the production and performance values to be found at pricier, big-ticket productions.

Make no mistake. This "How to Succeed" is several levels above the quality of the four-performer revues that managing director Jude Pohl previously offered at a succession of suburban hotels as producer of Jude Pohl Productions.

It's fully staged with a succession of smoothly moving set pieces designed by Scott P. Calhoon, who also serves as the musical's director and co-choreographer. Calhoon and co-choreographer Lynn Marie Woshner offer some lively chorus numbers, most especially "Coffee Break" and "A Secretary Is Not a Toy." The large, multi-level playing area allows performers to make full use of its possibilities. An act curtain closes to obscure more complicated set changes while the action continues on the large playing area in front of it. But with all the space available to the performers, you wonder why they're so often stepping backwards over bodies that litter the floor.

Costume designer Don DiFonso contributed a jumble of costumes that lack a coherent color palette. Some are period perfect in their riotous color, style and design. Others, such Rosemary's Act One apricot shift and the group garb for the Paris Original number, are shamelessly shapeless.

Percussionist Deb Weible and keyboardist Holland Jancaitis provide live accompaniment for Frank Loesser's sprightly, peppy music and lyrics.

"How to Succeed" is a show that's likely to fit well with dinner-theater patrons.

It's a tuneful, amusing tale of an eager and ambitious young man's rise up the corporate ladder, circa 1960. Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert based their tale on Shepherd Mead's amiable satiric book of the same name. It gently skewered the late '50s and early '60s business culture of coffee breaks, office parties, old-boy networks and women whose ultimate career goal was to support their husbands' advancement.

Casting is the weakest element of the production.

What the nearly two-dozen performers lack in talent and training, they attempt to make up for in overeager energy. With ringside tables literally butting up against the edge of the stage and no patron seated farther than 20 feet from the stage, there's no necessity for the sort of broad actions and mugging that might be essential at Heinz Field. While it works for Amy Bushey's blond bombshell Hedy La Rue and to a degree for Corey Nile Wingard's whiny, bratty momma's boy Bud Frump, too much of a good thing can be grating. John Roell's more natural performance as "I Play It the Company Way" Mr. Twimble strikes just the right note.

But it's rare for a new company to get it completely right the first time. The Canterbury Dinner Theatre has lots of growing room. With proper support, it could fill a much-needed niche in the local theater community.

The Canterbury Dinner Theatre production of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" continues through May 19 at the Canterbury Dinner Theatre at Pittsburgh's Cathedral Hall, 810 Chartiers Ave., McKees Rocks. Performances: 6:30 p.m. dinner, 8 p.m. show Fridays and Saturdays; 12:30 p.m. dinner, 2 p.m. show on Sundays. Packages: $40 for Fridays and Saturdays; $39 for Sundays. Details: (412) 471-7070.

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