DONNER PARTY, THE MUSICAL! -- L.B.
Reviewed by Zach Udko
Don't worry. This isn't what you think. Producers have not oversold percentages of the profit only to close after opening night. This is no Springtime for Hitler. Sorry. What writer and director Cynthia Galles has concocted is the ultimate drama spoof set at Hell's Kitchen Dinner Theatre, also known as "Brea's Finest Fun & Food Hot Spot." And what other tale could be more appropriate to steal the limelight at horrible dinner theatre than that charming piece of American history, the Donner Party Crossing? There's nothing quite like a singing cannibal to whet the appetite.
Audience members choose between spring water, fire water (white wine), or sodie (Diet Coke) for a pre-show beverage. The cast of the musical doubles as servers in several hilarious behind-the-scenes peeks at atrocious theatre management. Someone has seen Waiting for Guffman a few too many times here, but you can't argue with the winning, if not always completely original, results. Onstage, the cast belts out Drayfus Grayson's unforgiveably bad (bad is great, mind you) score with such hit jingles as "Ho to California," "Snow," "Bread," and the showstopper of the night, that jazzy and funky cannibalistic number "You're Looking Good to Me Now."
Just as the Donner Party begins to eat one another, dessert is served. Body parts get distributed to the audience in lieu of cookies. Oops! Galles stands off to the side for much of the show to play the drop-dead funny cook, who seasons the Styrofoam steak and chicken that's thrown at the audience in between scenes. The other two scene stealers are the dynamic Damon Kupper as James Reed and Barbara Duncan as the sentimental Margaret Reed. Duncan's character has the tendency to lip-sync the musical's voiceover lines, and offer personal commentary between scenes: "That part always makes me want to cry." The rest of the cast is equally horrible, or wonderful, rather.
Technically, the show is so awful that it's brilliant. A scrim drops for some scenes to be played out in silhouette, until the set falls on the actors. Travis Swanson is credited as "flipping all the switches," and he does a mighty fine job at lending the production a true sense of dinner theatre authenticity. With a change in venue and a move to the West Side, Donner Party could become this year's Reefer Madness. And if that crossing can't be made, audiences will have to flock out to the Marie Callendar's in Long Beach for what this critic hopes will be Galles' next effort: Heaven's Gate, the Musical!
© 2000 Back Stage and BPI Communications Inc. All rights reserved.
Found Fans Devour Donner Party Show
Robert S. Tefford - Gazette Theater Critic
Grunion Gazette, August 10, 2000
If the rest of Long Beach gets wind of Donner Party: The Musical, the Found Theatre is going to have to extend the run til Christmas. Id suggest they move it to the Terrace Theater, but a good three-quarters of the show is what you see of back- stage preparation. Pandemonium would be a better word. The Found Theatre has always been known for its lunacy, but Donner Party borders on inspired lunacy. The story is a simple one. The Hells Kitchen Dinner Theatre has hired a group of actors (non-Equity, obviously!) to perform the harrowing tale of the Donner Party debacle back when the wagon load was swamped with snow in whats now known as Donner Pass and resorted to a slight touch of cannibalism. All this, of course, is dramatized with choreography and musical accompaniment. The music by Drayfus Grayson is clever, and his pillage of Rodgers and Hammerstein deserves either a Grammy or a lawsuit.
The book, direction and, we assume, the choreography with accompanying pantomime and pandemonium are the masterwork of theater dominatrix (and I mean that in the most complimentary of terms!) Cynthia Galles. Every inch of the production is rib-tickling. And speaking of ribs, a favorite moment is when the actors mistakenly serve the props to the audience. If you recall the Donner cuisine, you can imagine what the items were. You see, the Dinner Theatre manager has hired the performers to first serve the dinner (to the audience) and then do the Donner extravaganza. As the chef explains to the irate (insanely) manager, they are frozen dinners, and he has a frightfully small microwave.
But the show must go onon schedule! So the cast has to interrupt the performance incessantly to run into the audience with salads, then mashed potatoes and chicken legs, rib steak and body parts! (Dont worry, theyre styrofoam.). Its enough to give shtick a good name. To list the shenanigans would tax the memory, but one cant forget the irate actress who wouldnt stop flapping the thunder sheet; the styrofoam snow flakes that had to be swept up and flung (no other word for it) at the Donnerites; the first fatality resulting in perhaps the longest death scene on record and the Ode to Bread.
Galles inspired lyrics include the following:
"Gee, you look good to me;" "Give me your heart;" "Give me some choice and tender parts;" "Youre looking good to me." You cant resist sentiment like that, even if its rooted in gastronomics.
The Found Theatre is located at 251 E. Seventh St., with street parking. Call early because its a tiny theater and even opening night was sold out. 433-3363. Cast, prepare for a long run! I had a ball! Can you guess?