As the last wistful note of a Vivaldi concerto faded into the night, the audience applauded generously, as one would hope it would after a moving performance by a Juilliard-trained violinist. But it was the young woman's next move that would be the story told and retold to friends and family.
Slinging the violin over her shoulder, Janice Martin spun around and inched and wiggled her way up two silk draperies. She climbed more than 15 feet above the floor. Wrapping her ankles in the shimmering fabric, she flipped upside down, grabbed her fiddle and did a rousing rendition of Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir."
I stood and applauded.
So did most of the 700 other guests on the Showboat Branson Belle dinner cruise. That's not something you see every day, but that combination of impressive talent, remarkable food and the unexpected is typical of some of the country's most popular dinner theaters these days.
Vacation destinations like Orlando, Myrtle Beach and Los Angeles are popular breeding grounds for dinner theaters, particularly themed dinner shows. But adventurous shows can be found all across the country in communities big and small. Any of these should appeal to your appetite and sense of adventure.
Most Riveting Dinner Theaters
America's Most Adventurous Dinner Theaters
It's tough getting in to see this show -- not that seats aren't available most nights, but it's literally tough getting in. Visitors are given passwords, not tickets. Then they’re directed toward what appears to be a brick wall. Tap on that wall, and a rough-looking character opens a window and demands that you state your business and the password. If he approves, you're then ushered into the 1920s era of Prohibition, flappers and gangsters toting machine guns. You might end up on the stage doing the Charleston before the night is over.
Get your aaaarggh on along with an eye patch and three-cornered hat in the outdoor pre-show before boarding this land-based ship on South Carolina's pirate-controlled coast. Galley wenches, pirates and sea lions roam about as guests arrive. Once you’re indoors, mermaids, parrots and other creatures of the high seas splash about in a 750,000-gallon lagoon and set the place on fire while singing a tale of woe written and scored by Dolly Parton.
That Martin Scorsese, the Coen Brothers or Garry and Penny Marshall could possibly be at the next table as their material is liberally interpreted, condensed and messed with gives an extra edge to every performance. Using songs and dialogue from the body of work of Hollywood's best directors, the For the Recordseries has been one of the city's most popular shows since opening in 2008. Note that most shows are not G-rated.
Back in the heyday of dinner theaters, the wait staff often doubled as performers. Not so much anymore, but the Bootleggers of Circa 21 put on a show beyond just delivering drinks and removing cutlery. Dancing and singing their way through the aisles and up on stage before the main event, sometimes their show is just as good as or better. And you, the guest, get two shows for the price of one (you can always leave a generous tip).
Check your manners at the door and feel free to boo, hiss and make catcalls at this 50-year-old theater at the base of Pike's Peak. Filled with villains wearing black hats, heroes wearing white hats and damsels in distress, each show is a nod to those long-forgotten melodramas that were as predictable as they were fun. Note: Open May through September.
The Noble Horse Theatre began in 1871 as a livery stable and has served time as a riding academy. Since 2008 it has been a dinner theater. All of the shows, such as the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, include horses in pivotal roles. Before or after dinner, take a tour of the stables and mount a horse for a walk around the arena.
Take care not to sit too close to the stage or you could find yourself eating sawdust. These are real lumberjacks, tough guys in plaid shirts who know how to swing an ax. Each night they chop things up in the only dinner show of its kind in the country, throwing axes, climbing trees and rolling logs. Another reason to take a seat back from the stage a bit: the splashing antics in the log rolling competition.