LAYTON — Live theatre can be such a treat to behold. Seeing a talented actor deliver well-written lines is like eati a delicious chocolate. So it seems to me that enjoying theatre and food simultaneously is a no-brainer. I’ve never understood why some companies sell concessions in their lobby but do not allow it into their theater. Luckily, we can forget that silly notion by heading to a dinner theater. Treat yourself to a night with Salty Dinner Theater’s Emperor’s New Clothes.
It’s likely that you know the plot: the selfish emperor is taught a lesson through some fabulous yet invisible clothing. But in Salty’s version, the audience learns about the emperor’s shut-in daughter, the man she falls in love with, and the godmother who brings them together. The audience also gets to meet the author of the tale, who becomes more than just a name on the cover of a book.
The stage/set was simply the banquet room at Mimi’s Cafe in Layton. (Salty Dinner Theater plays in various locations.) It perfectly suited the characters, with its colorful décor and space between tables for the actors to use. I also loved the rich fabrics of the costumes, rented from Hale Center Theater. The way the cast interacted with the patrons pre-show was casual and fun, not too pushy; when the people at my table preferred not to participate, the manager (Sircy Maggio) quickly accepted their response and moved on. The soldier, played by the charming Clayton Barney, handed out a resumé to each table—a clever way to sneak in some background info. Many dinner theaters perform murder mysteries, but I was glad to be free of that urgency and speculation this time; I was able to relax and watch the story unfold.
Beth Bruner wrote and directed the production. I enjoyed her script; it was an interesting idea to have Hans Christian Andersen narrate the story and then jump in to play a character. I enjoyed the nods to modern-day events and culture, like Facebook and Star Wars, but not all of these references were winners with the audience. (If a joke falls flat, I wonder if Salty can remove them for the next show.) At times it seemed that the actors paused a bit too long for a response from the audience, and even goaded them a few times, “Huh, huh?” Joseph Thompson (as Hans Christian Anderson) and Jason Jones (as the Emperor) were the main culprits of this. I was confused when some of the characters were referred to with several different names; Tonia Sayer played a magical character, who was either “the spirit of the fire/flame” or a godmother or a fairy. Also, was the handsome young gentleman a “prince” or a “soldier”? Perhaps both?
Johanna Blair was fun to watch, as the mute “fool.” She was expressive and energetic, approaching audience members with a dash of bashfulness. When she danced, too, she was such a joy. At one point Blair played a fanfare on an invisible trumpet—it was a great comical moment. Blair is also utilized as a singer during the show. She has a good voice, for sure, but every time she sang I felt her role in the actual story was invalidated. Despite Joseph Thompson’s comment that “she sings pretty good for a mute,” I still would have preferred to believe in the “fool” character throughout.
I had a difficult time connecting with the emperor (Jason Jones). His character choices just missed the mark for me. I think the primary mistake was the voice that he was putting on; it sucked the realism out of his lines. Once Jones “saw” his new clothes, his reactions and phrases felt more natural. My favorite performances were from Tonia Sayer, as the fairy godmother, and Marion Strobell, playing the princess. Both were very fitted to their roles, and were entirely believable in the way they spoke and interacted with the other characters.
I was very impressed by the audience we had; they were so willing to cooperate and did an awesome job. Two “princes” from the crowd were instructed to ride into the room on stick horses to slay the villain with dance moves; when the background music turned to, “Don’t you wish your girlfriend was hot like me,” I laughed my very hardest at that random stranger riding a “horse.” Salty knows how to involve a crowd. I also loved watching the audience members’ faces when they were being spoken/sung to by the cast.
The singing and audience participation were very enjoyable, but I was a little put off by the breaks from the story. I wish there had been a more cohesive way to enjoy those elements, like more songs that fit into and pertained to the plot, rather than singing-breaks while someone changed costumes. There was one song incorporated into the action, sung by the princess (Marion Strobell) and the soldier (Barney). It felt natural and sounded like a tune from the ’70s. I wish there had been more like it.
There were a few moments of feedback from the microphones, but overall, I could hear the actors very well. And I enjoyed the selection of music used (except “Your Song,” which felt out of place). Some adjustments to pacing would have helped the second act, which felt slower for a while. There were times when it was hard to see the actors, but I don’t know if there is any perfect spot to sit in that “theater.”
Like popcorn at the movies, I enjoyed seeing this production in a dinner theater setting; I was entertained and fed. I danced in my seat and laughed at genuine reactions from the patrons around me. Salty has produced a quality show for their Utah audience—and I had a great evening watching the play.