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Calgary Dinner Theatre: Stage West’s British Invasion

We go behind the scenes for Stage West Theatre Restaurant’s musical journey, British Invasion

By Laura Pellerine

BACKSTAGE AT STAGE WEST

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British Invasion features 85 hit singles spanning the '60s, '70s and '80s.

It’s the night before Stage West Theatre Restaurant’s latest show, British Invasion goes before a live audience; only half the tables have been set and there is a frenetic energy in the typically calm space off Blackfoot Trail. I’m here to go behind the scenes and see why this show is the company’s most requested production.

When I walk into the spacious 400-seat dining room, I’m greeted by Technical Director Sean D. Ellis who tells me he’s in charge of everything non-actor related in the show. Dressed in jeans and a paint-smudged T-shirt, he adds that there’s still a lot of work to do. Ellis was part of the stage management team for the original Stage West production back in 2002 and because of that experience he’s learned a lot about what will work and what won’t.

“Everything seems like a good idea before it’s up and running,” he laughs. One of the changes in this year’s production is the double-decker bus the cast comes out with at the start of the show. “Back in 2002 the bus was more of an afterthought, and not well-planned,” he says, adding, “It even fell over. With this one we knew to be prepared.”

Stage West has been a staple in the city’s dinner theatre scene since it first opened its doors in 1982. Known for its 120-item buffet and productions like Jesus Christ Superstar and The Producers, it has attracted well-known actors like Cindy Williams (Laverne & Shirley) and Mickey Rooney. British Invasion is an original show made up of 85 hit British singles from the ‘60s to the ‘80s, created specifically for the theatre company by Stage West’s Executive Producer Howard Pechet and Nevin Grant. Audience response has been so great, it spawned British Invasion II: America Strikes Back, and ran twice at Stage West Mississauga, that they decided to bring it back to Calgary for a second run.

Back in the dining room, Ellis leads me behind the stage. The walls are black, cords are taped to the floor, and the only lighting comes from the glow of purple-ish bulbs placed here and there. The hallway is so narrow at points that it’s difficult for two people to pass through at once, but there’s an entire area dedicated to rows of era-specific wigs. “Tonight’s the first rehearsal with the wigs,” Ellis explains.

There are even more costumes—from Supremes-esque red silky gowns to white go go boots to flower-power peasant shirts, Ellis says each of the cast’s 11 actors has between 10 to 15 costume changes. No non-show people are usually allowed backstage because quick costume changes (some less than a minute) mean that at times, the actors are down to their underwear, though they have three wardrobe assistants. Rebecca who’s head of wardrobe, sweeps by and announces, “I’m having a moment!” Someone hears her and calls back, “That happens!”

Stage West veteran Gerrard Everard as Mick Jagger.

With 15 minutes before rehearsal starts, the actors descend backstage. Cast member Gerrad Everard stops to talk. He’s one of the show’s three headliners, along with Season 3 Canadian Idol winner (and Calgary native) Melissa O’Neil and Terry Hatty, who has sung lead vocals for The Guess Who.

Everard has been touring with the show on and off since it first debuted, and of the many singers he portrays, his roster includes audience favourites like Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart. At 6’4 he towers over me, dressed in white pants, a ponytail and a cut off shirt patterned after the Union Jack. Though he’s done the show “hundreds of times,” he insists it’s always different due to the continuously changing cast. “There’s always that buzz when you do live theatre,” he says. “I still have nerves, even for tonight.”

When asked if the cast is feeling prepared for tomorrow’s opening he says, “There’s a frantic, excited energy, but we’re as well prepared as we can be.” As a team they’ve had only two weeks to put it all together, and as Everard points out, the biggest challenge is the range of experience amongst the crew. In a show like British Invasion, which consists mostly of back-to-back vocal performances, the bag of actors versus singers is a mixed one: O’Neil for instance is more of a singer than an actor. “We’ll be ready though,” Everard insists. “And the show is rocking. It’s going to be a great party.”

“Five minutes!” someone calls from off-stage, meaning it’s time for him to go. I turn back to Ellis and ask if his team feels ready. He replies, “As long as we have a show we’re fine.”

THE DRESS REHEARSAL

“Full cast on deck please!” the stage manager calls out, and eventually, the actors, dressed in costumes similar to Everard’s, line up on stage. Director Anne L. Allan stands in front on the floor to give a pep talk before they begin. “I want everyone to give as much as they can, we’re looking for high energy,” she says. “If you mess up a costume, just blow it off. Don’t forget that this is a British invasion, so we have to invade the audience. Yes? Because that’s what an invasion is, it’s overpowering.” Allan, originally from Glasgow, promises in her Scottish accent that they will only stop if something needs fixing.

Brian Craik, the costume designer, pipes in, “Girls, at the end of Act One when you come back in these outfits, don’t do the coloured leggings, that will help you out. We’ll see how that looks.” Then they scatter off stage, chatting and giggling.

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A performance by "The Beatles."

The lights dim, and an electric guitar starts playing chords from “God Save the Queen.” The actors enter the stage holding up the strengthened double-decker bus cutout singing Cliff Richard’s “Summer Holiday,” before slipping easily into The Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour”—the first of 15 Beatles’ songs. In full character, the actors sing and motion to an invisible crowd.

At the beginning of the next scene (The Marvellettes’ “Please Mr. Postman”), three girls come out wearing the red slinky dresses. The girl on the right is missing a glove, but she carries on with the choreography like nothing is wrong. I see Craik quickly scribble some notes.

Next we go through more Beatlemania and some Merseybeat before moving to the ladies of the ‘60s. O’Neil’s sultry rendition of Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man,” has more vocal power than the original, and has Allan nodding “Very nice!” throughout the performance. Most of the time Allan is either sitting on the edge of her chair closely observing, walking around the room, pen in-hand to see the audience perspective, or huddled with Craik intensely whispering and comparing notes, and yelling out things like, “Can we make the lighting a little more rock and roll?”

During the intermission, I get Allan aside to ask her how it’s going. “It’s a bit harried,” she says. “Today we need to work on dance steps, timing and tidy feet.” I ask her what she thinks the biggest challenge will be, and she explains that it’s getting the cast to be fully committed to the moment, especially since they are changing characters, at times, within minutes. “In that second, when come on stage, they need to be there,” she explains. “But overall, I think they’re doing quite well.”

Act Two kicks off with the psychedelic colours, sounds and costumes iconic of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band phase. After the dancing and romancing of the early ‘60s, the music in this act is still fun, but the guitar riffs are grittier and the lyrics are deeper. Like the act before, most scenes go fairly smoothly, though there are times when someone appears missing a wig or accessory, and during Boy George’s flamboyantly fun “Karma Chameleon,” his two back-up singers make a failed attempt to lift him up.

"Elton John" performs “Benny and the Jets."

The biggest problem (and the only time the rehearsal is actually halted) occurs during Elton John’s piano entrance for “Benny and the Jets.” The piano, which is a prop built around an electric keyboard, is meant to be light and easily pushed to the centre of the stage by four backup girls while “Elton” (Matt Wagman) tickles the keys. Unfortunately the process takes too long, and the band is faster than the actors and props, and by the time Wagman is supposed to be singing, he’s still standing, throwing off the timing.

Allan cuts in, “Stop! Let’s set the piano back and do it again. This time, slow down the music!” The backup girls explain that part of the holdup came from the piano getting caught up in the bus, so Allan jumps up on stage to investigate. After disappearing offstage, she returns with the problem solved calling, “Here we go, start again, and take it a wee bit slower.”

This time the piano comes in smoother, Allan’s satisfied, claps, then sits back down. The girls have also changed their wigs—long, straight blond tresses have been traded for black and platinum Afros. From here, the last song of the show is Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” which finishes with the cast raising their fists in the air. Allan tells them it’s “fantastic!”, and to take a bow. Then it’s back to business: “Let’s get everybody out of costume!”

Aside from the great music and vocal performances, the other star of the show is easily Craik’s colourful costumes—especially Elton John’s glittery black-and-white cape and silver platform shoes. Getting the outfits as historically accurate as possible was so important to Craik and his team, that they began researching two-and-a-half months earlier. When I ask him if he’s happy with the way they turned out, he admits that there is still tweaking that needs to be done. “I have my shopping list of things I need to get tomorrow. We’ll be busy right up until we’re ready to go on.”

SHOWTIME

One week later, it’s 6 o’clock on the official opening night and the lobby is crowded with well-dressed theatergoers, (Stage West has a mandatory semi-formal dress code). When everyone is seated, many head straight for the buffet room.

Once the show begins, the audience quickly seems to get into the spirit, singing along, tapping their feet, and nodding to each other as they recognize a song. Some of the biggest laughs of the night come from Herman’s Hermits “I’m Henry the Eighth,” Everard’s Mick Jagger impersonation, and Boy George’s “Karma Chameleon.” I notice new character improvisations here and there, and during Elton’s ”Benny and the Jets,“ the piano entrance goes smoothly.

Matt Wagman (left) and Gerrad Everard (right) perform Peter and Gordon’s 1964 hit “A World Without Love.”

The loudest applause comes for “Son of a Preacher Man,” “Let it Be,” and “Satisfaction,” as well as Terry Hatty’s soulful renditions of The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” At the end of “We Are the Champions,” around me I hear excited reactions from audience members saying things like, “The music was fantastic!” and “Amazing!”

One man in particular catches my eye—throughout the entire show 47-year-old Brian Smith, sang and danced along with each song as if he were at a rock concert. “What an arrangement! They covered them all!” he says when I go down to talk to him at his table. “It was awesome going down memory lane, especially since part of it was the soundtrack of my life.”

“Part?” interrupts his wife, Giny.

“Okay,” he concedes laughing. “Most of it was the soundtrack of my life.” He goes on to talk about his favourite moments in the show: “Gerrad was over the top—the perfect Jagger. He stole the show. But the band was tight and the cast could really sing.”

Giny was most affected by Elton John. “I saw that concert when I was 13,” she says. “His voice was just like that, and he actually came out wearing that cape and those shoes.”

I catch up with Craik, and ask him about some of the wardrobe changes since the dress rehearsal. He tells me that there were new pants and hairstyling for “Mellow Yellow,” and new glasses for Elton John. He seems relaxed now that the work is done.

Everard is equally pleased, especially with the slight improvisations he made from the week before. “I always like to try new things,” he tells me. Like the costume director, he too has put in months of research to be as historically accurate as possible for his characters. “You have to pay respect to these guys, they’re legendary” he says.

He adds that feeling the audience’s good energy helped him to put on an even better show. “The crowd rocked,” Everard says. “It was a fun night.” Judging by the crowd’s standing ovation at the show’s end—a rare sight for a dinner theatre performance—the audience thought so too.

Stage West's dinner buffet features seven food stations and 120 items.

THE FOOD

One of the most important aspects of any dinner theatre is the food, and at Stage West they take this concept very seriously. Executive Chef Dick Tsoi has worked in the theatre’s kitchens for the past 22 years, and he has perfected the process of serving an average of 400 guests a 120-item buffet a night.

This past fall, the eating area underwent major renovations: the company added a new private room, a dessert bar in their lobby, and a new buffet room. Located outside of the seating area, it’s closer to the kitchen, and offers seven food stations: sushi, sautée & grill, cold salads, a carving station, a build-your-own salad bar, desserts, and a steam table.

Not only does the new system allow for diners to get their food faster, but for Tsoi, it’s enhanced the kitchen’s quality control, and opened up a whole new menu of dining options. “Before we were limited to what could hold up on a steam table,” he explains, “but now we can do things like carved-to-order sashimi.” They also serve rotating items like lemon, pepper-crusted salmon with basil-garlic pesto, and roasted Parisienne potatoes with fresh rosemary.

Each day there are 28 people in kitchen, continuously preparing food from 8 am to midnight, and each performance requires an average of 100 lbs of potatoes, 80 lbs of shrimp and Alaskan King crab, and at least 20 lbs of every vegetable served.

Tsoi’s favourite dish? Korean beef short ribs: “They get a chance to marinate over night and get really tender and flavourful.”

DINNER THEATRE AROUND THE CITY:

Jubilations Dinner Theatre
Strut & Jive the Night Away On to Feb 7
Luck Be a Lady Feb 12 – Apr 11

The Deane House Restaurant Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre
Faster, Higher…Deadlier Jan 8, 15, 22, 29
The Valentine’s Day Massacre Feb 13, 26

Stage West Theatre Restaurant
British Invasion On to Jan 24
Glorious! Jan 28 – Apr 4

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