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Value Pact

The crowd is half the fun of dining at Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre.
Erik Guzowski

My tablemates can't get over dessert. It's been the topic of conversation for the past 45 minutes, the oohing, the aahing, the veritable drooling over the chocolate cake, the cream pie, the fruit bars. Any moment now, I'm sure the group will spasm, collapsing under the table with arms and legs pointed skyward, bellies bulging like ticks ready to pop.

The gluttonous display is partly gross, partly charming. And it's entirely what Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre -- West is all about: an orgy of entertainment, glitter and mass quantities of food, all at rock-bottom prices. In fact, a large part of the theater's come-on is in its value, proudly promoted as the Valley's unbeatable dinner deal.

Do I like it? The food -- god, no. This is an embarrassment to cafeteria cuisine, stuff that would be hard to appreciate even if were given away for free. But the experience as a whole is relatively satisfying, the food's failings glossed over by feel-good service, a comfortable setting and topnotch, Broadway-style productions.

And more important, there's unquestionably a need for this type of feed. My gleefully groaning dinner companions are proof that for many, quantity is just as good, if not better, than quality.

Who these companions are, I don't actually know. Given the choice between a private table for two in the back of the theater and communal seating for eight mere feet from the stage, I opted for the latter. It makes for enjoyable eavesdropping, sitting awash in a sea of primarily silver-haired patrons, some 500 geriatrics with heads glittering like diamonds under the warm theater lights. Since Broadway Palm opened in November, it's been playing to full houses, primarily stocked by what appears to be a 50-plus crowd.

The crowd is half the fun of dining at Broadway Palm, truth be told. This is a crew that remembers and respects the days of style. Dinner out means dressing to the nines, dusting off the sequined frocks and smart suits, wide-lapeled though they may be. It's fun to absorb their energy, soak up their sheer delight at the bountiful buffet tucked into a room next to the purple-curtained stage set with sparkling lights.

Most of the guests have been seated since 6 p.m., a good two hours before show time. And they've put the time to fruitful use, packing away plate after plate after plate, determined to wring every penny's worth from their $37 ticket.

"The ice cream bar is all you can eat," marvels one gentleman, balancing a second helping of vanilla scoops ladled with chocolate fudge sauce (Hershey, by all bets), aerosol whipped cream and M&M's. "I don't think they have any idea how much I can eat."

Likely management has a pretty good guess -- the owners, the Prather family consisting of Tom, Deborah and Will, have been in the dinner theater business for more than 35 years. Besides Broadway Palm, the Prathers run the Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre in Pennsylvania and the Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre in Florida. Their newest operation is in a former grocery store in Mesa.

The renovation is all-encompassing, beginning with a grand lobby fronted by the Playbill Bar, serving cocktails before and after the show (specialties of Manhattans and martinis, no surprise). A gift shop helps kill time, and a compact art gallery showcases works by regional artists.

There's nothing entirely elaborate about the theater, with its blue walls, dark ceilings, red-orange-blue carpeting and blue vinyl chairs packed tightly against long, slender tables set sideways to the stage. Know your neighbor? No doubt -- at one point I find myself engaged in deep discussion with a seatmate over the fluffy qualities of the packaged whipped butter that comes with the dinner rolls. Such cozy seating is a good icebreaker; I've come too close to spreading my neighbor's shirtsleeve instead of my bread.

Broadway Palm's chef has a challenge. Cranking out food for audiences of up to 1,000 a day is difficult enough; keeping it interesting but not too offbeat is doubly hard. Sure, catering to a crowd that seems to seek out Luby's and Landmark restaurant-style comestibles has its limitations, but a real failing here is due to plain sloppiness. Executive chef and Scottsdale Culinary Institute graduate Clifton Weir has a strong background in feeding the masses, with a decade of experience at places like local retirement communities, theme parks, casinos and convention hotels. But surely he can do better with the presentation -- lose the bargain-basement cafeteria plates and plastic ice cream dishes, for example. And a bizarre "signaling" routine of tipping our coffee cups in various positions to indicate whether we'd like regular or decaffeinated brew is almost funny.

A salad bar is suitable, offering tubs of utilitarian favorites. There are no surprises among the basic garden-green toss, or the toppings of radish, cucumber, celery, carrot, cauliflower, sliced mushroom and cherry tomatoes. Tubs of prepared salads are typical, the potato salad, the coleslaw, the pasta blend and a vinegary multi-bean blend. A better bet is to fill up on a truly good Caesar, sparked with fresh-shaved Parmesan.

Main-dish descriptions read pretty well, printed on placards for diners being herded through serpentine stanchions. Menus change from show to show, and periodically Weir throws in specialty dishes to complement a production (Southern-style for a Civil War staging, sliders and corn dogs for a kids' matinee of Cinderella).

For the debut production of Gershwin's Crazy for You, entrees walk familiar ground. Six choices offer variety, but the unifying theme is bland, boring and bleak.

Penne primavera Alfredo turns gloppy just seconds after it's spooned out of a chafing dish. Manicotti stuffed with roasted garlic and cheese under a blanket of marinara is both flabby and crusty, a victim of sitting around too long. And mid-quality cuts of London broil get no help from a lifeless peppercorn glaze. Pork loin is hand-carved and the meat is fine -- juicy and competently roasted -- but a too-heavy crust of stone-ground mustard and rosemary looks disturbingly like fur.

Broadway Palm also finds the return of that banquet classic, rubber chicken. Supposedly it's been spruced up by prickly pear with roasted red pepper buerre blanc sauce; the bird tastes only of gravy. Salmon stuffed with Alaskan crab under boursin dill sauce is an effort to eat -- the flaccid fish is achingly dry.

Sides are predictable. Wet green beans with caramelized onions. California mixed vegetables in watery broth. Rice pilaf dotted with dried cherries and orzo, but no ambition. Roasted garlic red bliss potatoes have potential, the skin-on spuds mashed and swimming with thick gravy, but they don't do anything for me.

By dessert time, it's clear that the staff has given up all pretense of style. A dessert table is a mess, littered with crumbs, frosting, empty whipped-cream cans and aluminum pie tins that look like they've been set upon by wolves. A sugarless offering of blueberry pie is a nice idea, but without enamel-melting sweetness, there's little reason to sample any of this stuff.

A final, pre-curtain pass through the buffet lines finds chafing dishes wiped clean, ravaged by diners who, just in case they are in for a lackluster show, have gotten much more than their fill. They needn't worry. Crazy for You turns out to be riotous fun, the best of an elaborately costumed musical cliché. At the end, the crowd is on their feet cheering.

Too bad the buffet -- even by the bucket -- doesn't hit notes as high.

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The Palms Theatre

5247 E. Brown Road
Mesa, AZ 85205

480-924-6260

thepalmstheatre.com


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