As Great Grandpa Alphonse Soady used to say, “If ya can’t beat ’em, join ’em, eh?”
Okay, nowhere does the long dead, legendary founder of the Soady family deer camp say anything close to that in Jeff Daniels’ “Escanaba in da Moonlight.” But I suspect that would be his reaction to StarBrite Theatrical Productions’ decision to open the original Yooper comedy at the New Premier Dinner & Theater in Chesterfield Township only days after its much later prequel, “Escanaba in Love,” made its move to Detroit’s Gem Theatre. And if the seemingly larger crowd at the opening night performance is any indication, artistic director Randy Magner’s plan to offer theatergoers two opportunities to revisit the Soady clan might just be a stroke of genius.
And the fact that the StarBrite show has plenty of laughs might help, too.
It’s November 15, 1989 – the opening of hunting season – and the Soady clan makes its way to the camp north of the Upper Michigan community of Escanaba for its annual frenzy of male bonding. Albert (played by G. Bryan Shelby), who also serves as the narrator, arrives first, followed by sons Reuben (Brad Rowell) and Remnar (Rob Lee) and Jimmy “the Jimmer” Negamanee from Menominee (Jim McCool). Decades of traditions are about to be broken, however, as Reuben does not want to become, at age 35, the oldest Soady to never bag a buck. So out go the pasties and in come a milky drink laced with moose testicles (just the left ones) and a magic potion made of “porcupine piss” provided by his Ojibwa wife, Wolf Moon Dance (Maria Ahola). But when blinding lights and strange whispers invade the camp, freshly brewed sweet sap whisky goes bad and a deck of Euchre cards mysteriously changes before their very eyes, Rueben’s curse seems assured.
Or is it?
Unlike most dinner theater packages, shows at the New Premier are presented in a movie theater modified for stage productions. (Dinner is served at Guiliano’s Ristorante, several steps away through an inside corridor.) So there’s no clanging of drinking glasses during the show, no waiters sneaking about – and there’s virtually no bad seat in the house. (Except for the few broken ones, that is.)
And the show itself? It’s full of laughs – and the fart jokes that adult men and children love more than women seem to – thanks to perky direction by Rob Papineau and a generally talented cast. Rowell is especially notable, as is McCool.
But other actors slowed the show’s pacing this past Saturday night by bobbling their lines throughout the performance. And technical difficulties were also quite evident. (Sound and lighting miscues pretty much destroyed the play’s climactic moment.) And there needs to be a decision made: Should all actors freeze whenever Albert steps outside the action to become the narrator? Sometimes they do; sometimes they don’t. And there are times when both happen at the same time.
‘Escanaba in da Moonlight’
StarBrite Presents at the NEW Premier Dinner & Theater, 33151 23 Mile Road, Chesterfield Township. Fri.-Sat., through Dec. 1. Tickets: $39.95; price includes three-course meal at Guiliano’s Ristorante, show and tax. For information: 586-725-2228 or http://www.starbriteprod.com