In preparation for the feature on Theatre Rowe Productions (aka Columbia Dinner Theatre, and the Southeastern Theatrical Arts Bandits, or S.T.A.B.) found on pg. 8 of the current print edition of Jasper, I attended a performance of James Daab's Who Killed the Boss? back in January. As detailed in the article, a fair number of this relatively new group's performances are a combination of dinner theatre and participatory murder mysteries, although other productions have included classics like Of Mice and Men, the upcoming Sunshine Class Social Committee (not a mystery, but still a dinner theatre performance, opening March 28th) and Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks (neither a mystery nor a dinner show, opening May 16th.) After a run of a few weekends, the mysteries then become part of the group's repertoire, and will periodically return, either at the home base in Richland Mall, or at any number of locations on the road (see www.scdinnertheatre.com for dates and hosting venues.) This weekend, Who Killed the Boss? returns with a vengeance, as befits any tale of tongue-in-cheek murder and mystery. These shows are produced and presented for fun, since the dinner, the experience of an evening out with family or friends, and the interaction with the cast is as much or more of the end goal than anything else, so it's hard to do a traditional theatre review. Here then is more of an account of what you can expect. Arriving at the performance space upstairs at Richland Mall, I naturally wonder, as anyone who grew up in Forest Acres often does, not only who killed the boss, but who killed the mall? Thankfully Theatre Rowe, their nearby neighbor Columbia Children's Theatre, and of course the movie theatres on the roof are ensuring that there is plenty of liveliness in the space where many of us once haunted Miri's Records, the Happy Bookseller, the Colonial store, the Liggett's drugstore, Woolworth's, and of course the air-conditioned, rocking-chair theatre. Founder/owner/principal director (and frequent actor in performances) Philip Rowe greets me at a reception desk just inside, and this is where any details on reservations, tickets, etc. are worked out. Usually, however, this has been already done over the phone, after you have made your reservations either online or by phone, since the mechanics of ensuring the right number of dishes for the right number of people make advance planning a necessity. My choices this evening were simple - lasagna, or veggie lasagna, along with salad, rolls, and dessert. There is usually a veggie choice, and since the menu changes nightly, you may want to make sure what the featured entree is, in case you have some special dietary need. Beer and wine are extra, and can be ordered from your server at your table.
A lovely young lady shows me to my seat, and introduces herself as Amanda, the intern. Sweet, I think - the theatre has gotten big enough to have interns! A quick check of my program, however, reveals that there are three actors credited as "Amanda." Lesson One: everyone is already in character when you arrive, and most often your server is also one of the cast. Lesson Two: most roles are double and triple-cast, meaning that depending on the dynamics of who is playing opposite whom, you may see a very different show than what someone else saw the night before. The play begins, and as I'm told is common with this sub-genre of entertainment, especially in works by Daab, a scenario is quickly established to explain the dinner/audience scenario. Here, we are all employees of National United Technology Services, and the setting is the annual office party. Previous/future titles include like Marriage Can Be Murder (similarly set at a wedding reception) and Murdered by the Mob (set in a speakeasy), so there's always some excuse for food and drink to be consumed. In keeping with the office setting, the characters - who will soon be our suspects - engage in a team-building exercise, which involves... you guessed it: serving dinner to a large group of people.
Amanda the intern, played by Aleesa Johnson the night I attended, is sweet, young, naive, and hot. The role would normally be played by a blonde bombshell, a la Loni Anderson in WKRP, perhaps a tall, leggy super-model type, and/or a bubblehead, whereas Johnson is petite, tan, and perky. Which allows her to play with the character's lines, which are written broadly and almost generically, so that a wide variety of performers can do the role. Her cluelessness derives not from being dumb, but from being innocent: she marvels at how nice everyone is, like the IT guy who comes by her desk every day to spend time working on her computer, and the boss who promotes employee wellness by giving her shoulder runs daily. Bill the IT guy (Jesse B. Thompson in this performance) is of course a computer geek, which one would imagine as either an older guy, a la Les Nessman from WKRP (there are a lot of similarities to that classic comedy here) or perhaps Leonard from The Big Bang Theory. Thompson, though, is likewise a good-looking young 20-something, so he too plays with his characterization, using thick glasses, conservative dress, and a shy manner to portray a different kind of geek. Rowe himself plays Rob the sales guy, another WKRP type, whose cocksure manner is grudgingly tolerated due to his generation of the majority of the company's revenue. Rowe gets the lion's share of the laughs as a sort of smarmy, macho, annoying tool, and I'd love to see him play some gangster in Murdered by the Mob, or in The Altos, a Sopranos spoof produced last fall, and sure to return at some point.
Helen the office manager would normally be a controlling queen bee, in the vein of Joan from Mad Men, but Lisa Buchanan portrays her as more of a mother hen. Which is a great set-up for some of the comedy, when the ostensibly matronly figure unexpectedly lets down her hair to proposition another character. (Although I still recall Buchanan lasciviously writhing before me in another audience-interaction show years ago, when she played a particularly depraved Transylvanian party-goer in the original Rocky Horror at Trustus.) William Antley and Marcy Francis play the boss and his wife. Given the title of the show, it's no secret that the boss will be murdered, and Antley will return later as a different character to help the audience solve the murder.
The plot exposition is very much like any episode of Murder, She Wrote, with personalities and motives developed over the course of the first two scenes, just done with lots of comedy. Actors roam around the space, sometimes sitting down in a spare chair at your table. It's more than theatre-in-the-round - it's like 3-D, total-immersion-theatre. In the particular piece, I'm told later that there isn't nearly as much interaction with the audience, but in some cases, actors will engage you in conversation, asking you about possible clues, or giving you the chance to interrogate them. The show begins at 7 PM (although the house - and therefore the bar - opens around 6:15.) Salad comes out after the first scene, followed by the main course at 7:40 just when the murder happens. A long intermission allows for leisurely consumption of dinner, followed by the investigation, a break for desert, your chance to try to solve the mystery, and your check (if you had drinks or anything extra) arrives by 8:30 or so, followed by the big reveal of the killer, and you're done by perhaps 8:45. Lesson Three: if you turn in some silly wisecrack along with your guess as to the murderer's identity, like, oh, let's just hypothetically say something like "because I want to see her in handcuffs," your reasoning is likely to be read aloud to the audience. But that's encouraged. Anyone who correctly ID's the killer wins a prize, often a discounted ticket to another show. The food was good, and the overall experience was fun. Clearly both the cast and the audience were having a good time. Obviously, you don't go to a murder mystery looking for Shakespeare (although I still think Who's Killing the Capulets? would make for a great concept) but you won't be disappointed if you simply want a nice family evening out, with dinner and a show.
The night I attended in January had a smaller audience, as it was towards the end of the production's initial run. It was a nice mix of all ages: a couple celebrating a birthday, a young husband and wife and their in-laws, a larger group enjoying couples' night out, some folks on dates, and a few individual attendees just there for fun. Other performances sell out quickly, meaning a hundred or more people in attendance, many often part of group reservations. Meals are provided by A&J Catering, a side project of the chef at the Clarion Townhouse, meaning that there is no on-site kitchen - the meals are delivered, making those reservations in advance crucial. Who Killed the Boss? returns for two performances only this Friday, March 21, and Saturday, March 22. Entree choices include chicken marsala and sautéed tilapia with chardonnay sauce, along with rice pilaf, and sautéed squash and zucchini. Mmmmmmm. Tickets are going fast, so call 803-200-2012, or visit www.scdinnertheatre.com for information.
~ August Krickel