Chef’s Theater: A Musical Feast

Clear Channel is at it again, using the New York theater as a laboratory to hatch some new life form that might draw the rubes to its vast network of theaters and sports arenas. The Frankenstein's monster cobbled together defies description. Freakish creature is neither a legit theater piece nor a serious demonstration of the culinary arts.

Cast:
With: Chef Rick Moonen, sommelier Danielle Nally, hosts Paige Price and Mylinda Hull, and the Shawn Gough Orchestra.

Clear Channel is at it again, using the New York theater as a laboratory to hatch some new life form that might draw the rubes to its vast network of theaters and sports arenas. The Frankenstein’s monster cobbled together at the wannabe-sophisticated Supper Club defies description. The freakish creature doesn’t even have a proper name, being neither a legit theater piece nor a serious demonstration of the culinary arts.

Here’s the deal: For $115-$125 ($65 at brunch, not counting booze and tips), you can watch a celebrated chef writhe in embarrassment as he/she attempts to re-create a signature dish in an itsy-bitsy kitchen on an eensy-weensy stage, with the dubious assistance of two showgirl hostesses and a five-piece band.

In this Las Vegasy context, individual chefs generally take the stage for a week, although Jacques Pepin, Andre Soltner and Alain Sailhac — three legendary chefs from the French Culinary Institute — will play a split week in June, a gig that boggles the mind.

In case this sounds like fun, let’s be clear here: Like all inter-active shows, which is what this unnatural enterprise aspires to be, the success of the evening’s entertainment depends entirely upon the synergy between chef and audience on any given night. Whether because of inadequate promotion, a skimpy advertising campaign or the fact that the house was packed with a corporate sponsor’s clueless party guests (who thought they were being treated to an Olympic-themed Greek taverna feast), the “performance” attended by this reporter was a total bust.

The food was actually sublime, though. Rick Moonen, chef and owner of a three-star restaurant bearing his initials and a seafood expert of considerable international renown, rustled up a three-course meal of surprisingly delicate taste and complexity without being thrown off his game by handkerchief-waving revelers at a front-row table. He was gracious during a pre-prep interview that could hardly be heard above the floor din, and he didn’t even cry when the blond hostess slopped a half-bowl of confit onto the counter.

(Parenthetically, foodies might well salivate over the menu, which consisted of spice-seared yellowfin tuna with shaved radishes, crispy shallots and Champagne vinaigrette; pan-seared black sea bass with fennel confit, roasted peppers and razor clam vinaigrette; and, for dessert, almond poundcake with strawberries and Mascarpone cream. Preparation was a bit rushed, given the competition from the house, but cleanly executed and fully visible on a high-def screen that caught the action in close-up.)

But the sensational grub was lost on partygoers who were more in the mood for a barbecue, while serious foodies in the audience were nonplussed by the kitschy entertainment segments of the show. Although pared down (by two musical numbers and a couple of performers) from the original production that opened in April, the retooled show is still a neither-this-nor-that hybrid that needs to go back to the shop.

The question is, can this thing be fixed? Even three cabaret numbers are too many, if they are not integrated into the cooking segments and presented as part of a thematic whole. (If “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair” has anything to do with shucking razor clams, it was lost on this reporter.) Even songs that seem to adhere to a theme (as do Dave Frishberg’s “Peel Me a Grape” and Harry Connick Jr.’s “Recipe for Love”) fall flat when performed in a generic Broadway-belter song-and-dance style that has nothing to do with haute cuisine or the specific culinary styles of the individual chefs.

Granted, it’s too much to expect a medley of sea chanteys for Chef Moonen’s week on the hot plate (or, for that matter, an evening of chansons for the master chefs from the French Culinary Institute).

But the creatives (whose best work has gone into the compact and brightly lit stage design) need to cut the meaningless patter (cater to the chef, not the audience), get the showgirls into proper costumes (no off-the-rack cocktail dresses) and come up with a concept that celebrates the art of cooking through the art of musical theater.

Chef's Theater: A Musical Feast

Supper Club; 350 seats; $125 top

Production: A West Egg Entertainment (Marty Bell, Greg Smith & Stephen Fass, Clear Channel Entertainment) presentation of a performance in two acts conceived by Marty Bell and Joe Allegro, with original music by Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich. Directed by Stafford Arima. Musical direction, Shawn Gough; choreography, Casey Nicholaw.

Creative: Sets, Beowulf Boritt; costumes, Debbie Cheretun; lighting, Ben Stanton; sound, Peter Hylenski; production stage manager, Dana Williams. Reviewed May 14, 2004. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.

Cast: With: Chef Rick Moonen, sommelier Danielle Nally, hosts Paige Price and Mylinda Hull, and the Shawn Gough Orchestra.

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