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Wednesday, July 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 76.0° F  A Few Clouds
Arts

THEATER

Food and tunes meet on stage at the Cabaret Dinner Theater with David Burhnam
Actor performs Broadway sampler with dinner from Catering a Fresco


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I'll be honest; musical theater kind of escapes me. It's the original emo, swinging wildly from "quiet as a whisper" to "bellowing from the rooftop." And so much gesticulating! From either the hands waving or the lung capacity being expelled, a fellow's likely to have his hair blown back.

So it's with that background that I assure you that an evening of cabaret dinner theater at the Overture Center for the Arts entertained even me -- cynical, stick-in-the-mud me.

Overture offered its first dinner-and-music combo back on November 6, with Tony Award nominee Sally Mayes performing a set on the Capitol Stage. The second, on Thursday, February 19, featured acclaimed stage actor David Burnham.

Before the stage show, there's food. Your $67 ticket gives you access to passed hors d'oeuvres before the theater doors open, as well as a meal produced by Catering a Fresco. Although owned and operated by Food Fight, the meal is not identical to any served at Fresco, located above the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

I arrived just as the stage doors swung wide, so I missed out on such bites as brown sugar-crusted cocktail franks and salmon coronets with a red pepper Boursin on pumpernickel rounds. You don't know how sad I am about the cocktail weenies. Seriously.

A salad of baby spinach, gorgonzola, walnuts, and tomatoes was plated and awaiting us as we filed in to our tables. My impression beforehand was that this salad would not marry so well with the main course to follow, but the raspberry vinaigrette was light and acidic enough to prove me wrong. The salad was fresh and relatively neat; neither wilty leaves nor cumbersome bites prevented it from being simple and pleasant.

Dinner served for 100+ people can be a little tetchy, with inclinations towards stewable cuts of beef or overly dry chicken. The main course at Overture was neither. A bone-in breast of chicken was accompanied by fruit salsa and a skewer of jerk shrimp and grilled pineapple. The perfectly cooked shrimp had serious bite -- perhaps too much for some diners -- and the chicken was tender and juicy. There was very little gristle around the joint, and even the meager butter knife provided was enough to make light work of the cutting.

The main course had the execution, if not the ingenuity, of an entree at Fresco, but it was the dessert that truly made the meal feel big and decadent. A whole key lime tart, nearly the diameter of a softball, topped with whipped cream and served over a pool of raspberry puree that almost demanded a chalk outline will make anyone feel big and decadent. The lime was smooth and creamy, and the crust was sweet and neither too crumbly nor too buttery (yes, dairy evangelists, crust can sometimes be too buttery).

While dessert settled and coffee was poured, emcee Tom Carto -- Overture CEO by day -- introduced us all to David Burnham. He's appeared on Broadway in The Light in the Piazza and most recently in Wicked. His voice was featured in the animated version of The King and I, and has graced the stage in a number of high-profile national touring productions.

Burnham is blessed with a glittering smile, which of course is off-putting to stodgy, serious types like me. But his demeanor wasn't smarmy or tacky, and the energy with which he imbued his songs was more often than not respectably genuine. I was particularly happy to hear a couple tunes from Stop the World - I Want to Get Off, a show in which I once appeared when very young, when I lived in Appleton, Wisconsin.

Other songs came from Sinatra, Rogers and Hammerstein, and Jerry Herman's Hello, Dolly!. A trio of not-yet-on-Broadway songs written by acquaintances of Burnham were the most charming of his set; two were LOL-funny, while the unbridled romanticism of the third ("Someone to Fall Back On," by Jason Robert Brown) gave even me a goosebump or two.

The capacity crowd (tickets were sold out well in advance of the show) was both Midwestern-polite and enthusiastic. There was very little activity at the bar during the show, despite explicit permission given at the onset. Everyone was more interested in Burnham's powerful voice, and rightly so. The ovations given at the end of his performance were well deserved.

Let's be clear: I'm not talking about haute cuisine here. The food is above average, but not mind-blowing. But between the good food and such vocal talents as Burnham's showcased by Overture, these cabaret evenings are clearly worth what might look like a high initial investment. And really, how often do you get to eat dinner on stage?

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