Youmans: Serving up a murder mystery

In Gourmet Detective's "Get Cartier," a faux murder mystery takes places at the Balboa Inn in Newport Beach. The performers are the prime suspects, but it's the audience that serves up the dish of true entertainment.

"Get Cartier," which plays year-round, combines scripted comedy, musical performances, authentic costuming, and live piano underscoring, all within the setting of a full-service restaurant and interactive audience. Better yet, it's the audience member's job to solve the mystery.

Upon entering the dining room, audience members travel back in time.

The year is 1962. Four former comrades-in-arms and their loved ones gather to celebrate a birthday at the Hotel San Souci, on the French Riviera.

The guests, however, are unaware the party is a façade. Beneath the merry reunion of old friends lies a wicked scheme involving a priceless set of missing jewels, blackmail, unexpected romance, and — you guessed it — someone turns up dead. But, with the audience's keen eye, the murderer is sure to be caught by evening's end.

Gourmet Detective has the dinner theater formula down. And that's no surprise, considering tat the theater company is now celebrating 22 years of business in Southern California. The company's success was evident in the full house and professionalism and ease of service when I showed up for one of the performances.

For those who don't know how dinner theater works, here's the scoop. A murder mystery performance wrought with audience participation is played out in three acts, while the characters serve up courses between each scene. This allows audience members to interact with characters, ask them questions and try to solve the mystery.

When I went, the system worked perfectly, until the supposedly dead Hank Akerman was spotted serving coffee.

At dessert, the audience filled out a card asking who they thought had committed the murder, how and why.

In the meantime, the room filled with anxious chatter as guests sat around their tables, eating and debating about the guilty party.

In the final act, guests' most interesting guesses were revealed. Also, guests get the chance to win a prize if they got the killer right. Those who guessed correctly had their card drawn out of box, and the winner became the "Super Sleuth."

Audience interaction was the show's most notable strength. Guests were engaged from pre-show to dessert. Interjections from the audience were the evening's highlight.

For instance, when the privileged Charity Akerman was debating about the prospect of marrying a broke man, a woman in the audience shouted, "Don't do it, girl!"

But while visitors were encouraged to participate in a friendly, positive environment, performers "played" with the audience as well.

Reminiscent of the USO show era, female performers would approach and flirt with male guests during live musical performances. Period musical selections included "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" and "Mr. Sandman," which featured second-rate singing.

In another interactive instance, an angry chef came out of the kitchen infuriated that a "supposed guest" had made a special order. The performer singled out an audience member, rolled up his sleeves, and attempted to fight the shocked guest with a turkey baster.

But while the thrill of interaction between the audience and cast carried the evening, something was missing in the quality of the production itself.

Alyssa Canann and Tom Shelton's writing presented a fragmented story line with little room for development. By dessert, it felt like the tale was just beginning, and, consequently, it ended abruptly, loose ends untied and all.

Upon walking into the dining room, the space did not appear glamorous, but rather humdrum. The setup of the room presented performance obstacles, which the performers met with grace. Protruding walls in the room, which was surely meant to be two, blocked sight lines.

The space situation did not become any easier when guests were uncomfortably packed in. But even though it was overcrowded, the performers managed to weave through the round tables and perform to the whole audience.

For a show with virtually no set, the resourceful use of space and lighting was impressive. An interchangeable set at the center of the room, which initially served as the downstairs, became Akerman's hotel room. Once inside, the room's lights flickered on and off as the characters retraced their steps and moved in rewind motion.

Minimalistic production aspects contrasted the performers' over-the-top comedic performances. While Gourmet Detective attempts to separate itself from most improvisational dinner shows, their efforts have gone too far. At moments the scripted dialogue came off read, unbelievable, and certainly corny, a characteristic all too common in this genre of performance.

However, performers Anthony Lazaldo (Reginald Hammersmith), Elisa Lindsey (Frances Akerman), and the explosively present Dale Jones (Hank Akerman/Francois and the chef/Stephan) were exceptions.

Dinner theater is not for everyone, especially theater buffs looking for artistic merit. The genre is fitting for those with short attention spans and big appetites that want to see a show and not have to focus too much.

The Gourmet Detective provides audiences with an escape from the everyday in a light, fun and interactive environment suited for "date night," birthdays, anniversaries and holiday parties, but not serious, thought-provoking theater.

HEATHER YOUMANS reviews arts events for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go

What: Gourmet Detective's production of "Get Cartier"

Where: The Balboa Inn, 105 Main St., Newport Beach.

When: Shows in December are performed at 8 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and at 4:30 p.m. on Saturdays.

For ticket information: Call (888) 992-5424 or go to

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