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Theater section: Dinner and a show

Courtesy The Barn Dinner Theatre

When Broadway and the Big Apple are too far away, look to a nearby dinner theater to satisfy your group’s appetite for good food and musical comedy.

In big cities and small towns all over the country, dinner theaters are popular attractions for both locals and traveling groups. Combining the best of classic entertainment and geographical convenience, these theaters give fans the chance to see some favorite Broadway shows without traveling to New York or paying huge ticket prices.

Dinner theaters are diverse in their traditions and offerings. Some feature the best in local talent, and others are full-fledged Equity houses that audition professional actors from New York and other theatrical hotspots. Some dinner theaters specialize in regional comfort foods; others offer a la carte entrees to rival the menus of gourmet restaurants.

On your next group tour, consider a stop at one of these dinner theaters to add a little razzle-dazzle to the itinerary.

The Barn Dinner Theatre
Greensboro, North Carolina
Historic dinner theater tradition is still alive and well at the Barn Dinner Theatre in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Courtesy The Barn Dinner Theatree

“We are the oldest continuously operating dinner theater in the country,” said owner Ric Gutierrez. “We’ve been here since 1964. We’re in the round, and we have one of the only hydraulic stages left in operation right now.”

The guest experience starts with dinner at 6, with buffets placed in the middle of the room and patrons eating at tables surrounding them. Dinner usually includes baked Alaskan halibut, roast beef and Hillshire ham, along with salad, vegetables and a variety of desserts.

When the show is about to begin, the buffets are cleared away and the round stage is hydraulically lowered into place from the ceiling. As the theater has room for only 262 guests, every seat in the house is guaranteed to be a good one.

“Our shows are really unique,” Gutierrez said. “Being in your face like they are, there are a lot of things that can happen on that stage. Our patrons pay a lot of attention to facial expressions and small movements.”

Each year’s lineup of shows features a variety of classic musicals and newer productions. On tap for the remainder of this year are “Mowtown Love Machine,” “Nanna’s Naughty Knickers” and a special Christmas show written just for the Barn.

The Fireside Dinner Theatre
Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin
What began as a restaurant in a small Wisconsin town has become one of the most celebrated dinner theaters in the country.

Courtesy The Fireside Dinner Theatre

“The Klopcic family opened the Fireside on Mother’s Day 46 years ago,” said Jackie Brisko, the Fireside’s director of audience development. “It was a 60-by-60-foot pyramid out in a corn field. Thirty-three years ago they ended up adding the theater, and now we have four gift shops as well.”

Today, the company is still family owned, with a third generation of Klopcics on staff. That consistency has also carried over to the theatrical side, as the Fireside has had the same artistic director since it began producing shows decades ago.

Performances at the Fireside are presented in the round, with a cast of professional Equity actors auditioned each year from New York.

“Most of our productions are Broadway musicals and musical revues,” Brisko said. “Every so often we do a musical comedy. We produce the shows ourselves; we don’t bring in a Broadway show that’s on tour.”

The establishment is also known for its gourmet meals, which are served at restaurant-style tables before guests proceed into the theater for the show. Dinner includes fresh baked bread and a soup or a salad, along with entrees and desserts created by the house chefs for each show. Some of the food can be quite fanciful, such as the pumpkin ginger caramel swan dessert created for “Cinderella.”

The Fireside’s 2011 season will feature “Annie,” “A Closer Walk,” “David,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” and “A Fireside Christmas.”

Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre
Named after the beef served for supper and the boards that make up its stage, Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre in Indianapolis was once part of a regional chain of theaters. Today, it is the only remaining location, having produced more than 280 shows in its 36 years of operation.
In 2004, attendance at the theater’s shows topped 4 million people.

Courtesy Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre

“Beef and Boards is Indiana’s only year-round Equity dinner theater and one of only 13 Equity dinner theaters in the country,” said Patricia Rettig, the theater’s public relations coordinator. “Actors are found through auditions that take place locally, as well as in Chicago and New York. A new cast is selected for each show.”

The actors perform on a stage that is wheeled into place after dinner is served. Because the stage is movable, productions can include “turntable” revolving of the entire set, which allows for quick scene changes and special effects.

“Remarkably, rehearsals only last 10 days,” Rettig said. “Actors meet to learn music, blocking and choreography in the first week, with costumes, orchestra, set and lighting coming in the second week.”

Dinner is served buffet style: Some 180 pounds of roast beef are prepared for each performance, along with a full bar and a number of desserts.

In addition to Broadway musicals, Beef and Boards offers a select number of concerts throughout the year, inviting well-known groups such as the Glenn Miller Orchestra to perform.

Alhambra Theatre and Dining
Jacksonville, Florida
When the storied Alhambra dinner theater closed last year, Jacksonville local Craig Smith stepped in to save the entertainment landmark.

Courtesy Alhambra Theatre and Dining

“It opened in 1967 and ran continuously until last August 30,” Smith said. “The shows were always fantastic, but the place was old and rundown. So we bought it and completely renovated it.”

The original theater was designed to resemble the historic Alhambra Palace in Spain; the renovation preserved much of the architecture while adding colors and fabrics to give the interior the feel of an old-fashioned New York supper club. Smith updated the food as well, hiring a five-star Jacksonville chef to create customized menus for each show.

The new Alhambra continues to follow tradition by filling its cast with professional actors who come from New York; Orlando, Florida; and even the Jacksonville area.

“We’re very lucky in Jacksonville to have about 40 actors with Equity cards,” Smith said. “We have one who had her own television show on Home and Garden, and another who spent 10 years on Broadway and 10 years out in Vegas.”

Throughout the year, the Alhambra will present eight productions, among them a lineup of well-known musicals, one or two comedies, and a Christmas show. On the bill for the rest of 2010 are “The Wedding Singer,” “The King and I” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Carousel Dinner Theatre
Fort Collins, Colorado
Now in its 15th year, the Carousel Dinner Theatre in Northern Colorado has presented more than 100 shows and entertained more than 300,000 guests. In September, the operation is moving from its current home to a three-theater facility nearby that will feature a banquet area and other facilities.

“The Carousel will be the main anchor theater,” said the company’s Ryane Studivant. “Then there will be two other theaters that we’ll rent out to community theater groups and schools.”

The new space will open with Elton John and Tim Rice’s hit musical “Aida” and will be followed by “White Christmas,” “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” “42nd Street” and “Annie Get Your Gun.”

Along with the shows, visiting groups get a la carte dinners served tableside. The menu always includes chicken, beef, pork and pasta options, along with available upgrades to prime rib or pan-seared tilapia. Dinner can also include a signature dessert such as a toasted almond cheesecake or the “Midnight Delight” chocolate dish from Cold Stone Creamery.

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